When I served as interim rector at St. David’s in Wilmington, Delaware, I had a perfect symbol to use on the Feast of the Ascension. Above the altar hangs a large Christus rex. Suspended from the ceiling by strong wires, the Christ appears to rise from the earth and hover above all the disciples below. Each time I celebrated the Eucharist, I could see the bare feet of Jesus above me and the faces of my parishioners in front of me.
On Ascension Sunday, everyone in the church could look up and see the bottom of Jesus’ bare feet. However, I think that the altar servers and I had the best view. As we stood behind the altar, we could look up and we could see Jesus’ bare feet. But we could also look before us—into the faces of the followers of Jesus—the disciples gathered.
Yes, the Christ rose above us. At the same time, the presence of bread, wine and the gathered community of faith always grounded us all in the present world—even as we reflected on a world none of us can yet see. In today’s scripture readings, we get an intriguing juxtaposition of texts. The gospel is from the last chapter of Luke. The first reading is the first chapter of Acts. Since scholars believe that the physician Luke wrote both books, it is as if we’re getting Part I of the Jesus story in Luke, and Part II—which focuses on what the apostles did with the reality of the risen Christ—in Acts. Both passages refer to Jesus’ teachings and the truth that his teachings fulfilled all the Jewish teachings which had formed and shaped him in his own life.
In Jesus, God had come in the most perfect way possible to human beings. Yet Jesus did not remain on earth in his physical body. The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of glory proves to us—even in its inexplicable mystery—that God, the Creator of heaven and earth, has ultimate power over all of creation. Even death.
The Ascension is an event that can leave contemporary people scratching our heads. The images of both Luke and Acts seem literal. From Luke: “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” Now lest we get caught up in our own twenty-first century understandings of cosmology and physics (for example, what direction is “up” when you look at a globe of the earth?), perhaps we should first note the direct connections of the Ascension account to other texts in the canon of Holy Scripture.
First, remember what happened in the Hebrew scriptures of 1 Kings? The prophet Elijah was carried up into heaven in a chariot and Elisha picked up Elijah’s mantle to carry on his ministry. Even now, at every Passover Seder, an empty chair and an empty wine glass are placed at the table to remind the gathered Jewish community of the prophet Elijah. So when Jesus says, “These are my words. . .that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled,” faithful people remember Moses. Elijah. David.
In Acts, Jesus promises the power of the Holy Spirit and commissions the disciples to witness to his love and God’s reign all over the earth. Then Luke writes: “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” This reminds us of two events: First, Moses received the Ten Commandments in a cloud on top of Mt. Sinai. Second, on the Mount of Transfiguration, with Peter, James and John, Jesus was hidden in a cloud with Moses and Elijah. The gospel writer makes it clear to us that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection continue, yet at the same time, transcend and fulfill the Hebrew scriptures. The love of Christ has fulfilled the law given to Moses, the prophetic word uttered by Elijah, the reign and poetry of David. Further, the two men in white to which Luke refers in Acts remind us of his gospel resurrection account, when “two men in dazzling clothes stood beside” the women who had gone to the tomb.
Yet even as we connect the dots in theological and literary ways, we should not get too caught up in intellectual musings about Jesus’ “miraculous and mysterious departure from this world.” The first sentence in today’s gospel reminds us about the faith tradition from the past as fulfilled in Jesus. Yet the question in the penultimate sentence of Acts 1 points us not only to the future but what happens now. “. .why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” In other words, Jesus will return, but that is God’s business. Our business is to stop looking up. Instead, Jesus calls us to look out at the community around us. The angelic messengers seem to be “saying to the disciples that it is time to stop staring at the clouds and to get going to the world.”
In a woodcut from the late 1500’s, the artist Jerome Nadal portrays the Ascension of the Christ. Arms outstretched, clothes billowing gracefully, the Christ stands on a rising cloud, surrounded by cherubim. On the ground, two winged angels stand in the center. One points upward to Jesus with both hands. The other spreads her hands out. The disciples are all looking up. Yet if you look carefully, you see—at the angels’ feet—two distinct footprints. It is as if the artist reminds us of where Jesus’ ministry took place, and where ours is to take place: empowered by heaven. Grounded in the earth.
Jesus promised the first disciples that after they could no longer see him, he would not desert them. He would now be among them in a wonderful new way—through the power of the Holy Spirit, which would come to them at Pentecost. As one scholar has noted, “So long as Jesus was physically present, he was available only to those he encountered; by the Spirit he became powerfully present to many through his prophetic successors.”
Who are Jesus’ prophetic successors? You and me. So rather than to stand and look up at the clouds, at a heavenly mystery, we must look around and recognize that Jesus has given us work to do in the world. God knows, there is plenty of work to do. We can actively work to shelter the local homeless in our community during the bitter cold months of winter. Through our donations to LARS in our food basket, we can help feed those who need help to put enough food on the table. We can advocate for immigrant families in practical ways as they find their places in this country. We can reach out to care for those in our own midst who grieve, struggle with illness or disabilities, or who are lonely. We can—even this morning in this place—look around—not up—and welcome the stranger as we would welcome Jesus.
We are the disciples whom Jesus left behind on earth to help bring the reign of God into the here and now. Here, at St. Philip’s, what are we doing about that today? What will we do about that this week?
A prayer of St. Teresa of Avila: “God of love, help us to remember that Christ has no body now on earth but ours,no hands but ours, no feet but ours.Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world. Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now. Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.” Amen.
© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton
Picture of the Christus rex at St. David’s Parish in Wilmington, DE taken by McJilton
Other pictures accessed through Google images.
 Luke 24:4b.
 Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville & London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 502.
 Ibid., 504.
 Idem, Feasting on the Word, A. Katherine Grieb quoting Luke T. Johnson in The Acts of the Apostles (Collegeville: MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 31.