There is a lot of imagery associated with “looking up.” It’s good when things are “looking up” after we have been through a difficult time.
If you have posed for a group photo lately, it is likely that the photographer was placed on a higher level, either with a very tall ladder or on some upper landing of a stairs. All this is to capture you looking up, which is said to be our most photogenic angle. As I look out onto this audience, I see you looking up, and I can report that you are appearing most photogenic.
We can imagine that Jesus’ crowd of followers looking up as he ascended to the Father was a most beautiful sight. Did they wave and blow kisses? I’m not sure what the proper send off words are for someone who is ascending into heaven.
In preparation for Ascension Day, thinking of looking up, I have had this recurring vision of the hot air balloon carrying the Wizard of Oz as it lifts up above a chaotic and panic-stricken scene. As the story goes, acknowledging Dorothy’s homesickness and desperation to return home to Kansas, the wizard wants to make amends for his bad behavior. Thus, he pronounces that he is a balloonist and a Kansas man himself; he pledges to return Dorothy to her home.
The balloon is prepared and the plans ensue, but things don’t quite work out as intended. As the wizard and Dorothy wave their tearful goodbyes and begin their sensational departure, Toto jumps out of the gondola to chase a cat, and of course, Dorothy jumps out behind him, leaving the wizard alone in the balloon as it rises uncontrollably out of reach above Dorothy and her newfound friends – all of whom are crestfallen that Dorothy’s one means of returning home has been foiled. They stand looking up in a state of hopeless defeat – their dream lost.
Chaos and panic and hopeless defeat surely were not in the atmosphere of the scene as the disciples stood by while Jesus was carried up into heaven. In his words recorded in the Book of Acts, Luke adds that a cloud took Jesus out of their sight. Here, two men in white robes appear, perhaps Moses and Elijah, who had accompanied Jesus at the Transfiguration where they were overshadowed by a cloud through which God spoke. As we read in 2nd Kings, Elijah himself, had gone to heaven in a whirlwind as Elisha stood looking up – watching and crying and tearing his clothes as his mentor disappeared. Yet, quite calmly, Elisha picks up the mantle that had fallen from Elijah, the mantle – the mission – that now became Elisha’s mission.
In this scene of Jesus’ Ascension described in our Gospel account, there is no crying or tearing of clothes; Luke describes a setting that is quite calm, a silent suspension of time – no efforts to hold Jesus back. Yet, as for Elisha we are aware of a critical turning point for these timid followers – a turning point that requires our attention on this day, a turning point critical to our understanding of our calling to Christian ministry – and we are ALL called to ministry.
Jesus’ last words of instruction had opened the minds of the disciples; they knew this leaving was not hopeless defeat or loss of their dream – that it was, in fact, the beginning of an expanded journey. Once Jesus was taken up, we are told, the disciples worshipped him and returned to Temple where they praised God. They understood that Jesus’ ministry was not ending as their leader and teacher ascended into heaven; Jesus’ ministry was now transitioned to those followers who stood looking up. “Disciples” – students were now “Apostles” – messengers of the Good News.
As Christ ascended into heaven these first followers turned to the mission to which they were called. This Ascension, which we celebrate today as one of the seven principal feasts of the Church, is not simply a major feast to be celebrated on this 40th day of Easter each year, it is the day that the mantle of the Christian mission is laid before us. None of our feasts is less emphasized yet more important than Ascension. Will we pick up the mantle of the Christian mission as Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah’s mission?
In their state of despair, Dorothy and her friends come to understand that Dorothy has all along within herself the capacity to return home whenever she wishes. Glenda the Good Witch reveals the power of the ruby slippers, prompting Dorothy to click her heels together and chant: “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” Magically, Dorothy is transported back to her bedroom where she looks up into the faces of concerned family and friends.
Our calling to Christian ministry is not quite as simple as clicking our heels together. But, like Dorothy and Elisha that ability to further the mission is within us; the responsibility is ours; the mantle is handed down to us. As we are one with Jesus Christ, we carry the Christian mission within us.
We come together as one Body of Christ sharing in the communion of that Body and Blood that unites us all, regardless of our faith tradition. We came to gather in this assembly to celebrate the Ascension. But, we did not simply come to a church to worship on this evening – We ARE the Church; we ARE the Christian ministry as it has been transitioned from that day of the Ascension.
Why do you stand looking up? There is great joy in our worship and praise. We move now into the sacred pause of the ten days between Jesus’ earthly departure and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The mantle has been laid at our feet and we go forth to look out onto the ministry to which we are called
Drawing from the words of the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians: On this blessed feast of the Ascension, with the eyes of your heart enlightened (as you go forward into the reflective quiet of these next ten days), may you know what is the hope to which our Lord has called you, [Ephesians 1:18]