Every Ascension Sunday sermon I've ever heard preached has focused on the question, "Why Do You Stand Looking Up Toward Heaven?" -- with the message that we need to be about God's business -- feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, setting the captives free -- instead of getting, as they say, so heavenly minded that we're no earthly good.
Part of this, I think, has to do with our contemporary discomfort talking about the Ascension as an event; as someone noted in The Text This Week , what do you do with an Ascension? In choosing artwork for this blog entry, I decided upon a detail of the Vanni painting, not the entire piece, because it just looks too comical -- Jesus is flying through the air, cape flapping behind him like a Marvel superhero, with his arm outstretched: "To infinity -- and beyond!"
I personally am of the Something Happened school -- the Jesus who was killed did not seem to stay dead...appeared to both individuals and groups of his friends in surprising ways over a short period of time...then these visitations stopped; but in a way that left his friends with the understanding that their relationship with him was still going to be a real relationship,lived out in a different way. One of my friends on Beliefnet quotes someone as describing Jesus' Ascension as Jesus entering into the very heart of God and thus making himself accessible to all; I couldn't find a good illustration of that to post here, but I think the image works better for most of us than "Beam me up, Dad."
And, from a specifically Lutheran perspective -- as Garrison Keillor describes in the weekly news from Lake Wobegon, we Lutherans want to be a useful people. Baking casseroles for funeral dinners is more our discipleship style than contemplative prayer. At heart we're more comfortable with "Get back to work" sermons than "Celebrate the Mystery" sermons.
But I think Mark Allan Powell, whose book Loving Jesus I've been reading lately, would approach the Ascension from another perspective. In his book he spends a great deal of time talking about the paradox of Christ's simultaneous presence and absence. Of course Christ is present for us in the revealed Word of Scripture, in one another and in the Sacraments. But at the same time, Powell notes, we live in a state of "confident sadness." We miss Jesus' face-to-face, unmistakable presence. Powell notes, in talking about the Eucharist's foretaste of the feast to come, "Enough with the appetizers! I want the feast!" We live, as Christians, in a constant tension between the now and the not-yet. Our Love is here, yet not here.
Continues Powell: "Confident sadness allows us to live with faith that does not deny reality, faith that recognizes that life in the world is hard, and indeed, not as it should be...we are in love with a bridegroom who has gone away."
So perhaps an answer to the question, "Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?" is: Because we're happy. Because we're sad. Because we're expectant. Because we're impatient. Because we're in love.
And all of that is okay.
Detail, "Ascension," Andrea Vanni