Monday, May 16, 2016

Sermon: Ascension Day Feet



A Sermon preached in 
Christ Church Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The
Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate

Ascension Day, Year C

5 May 2016
Listen to this sermon here
For readings click here.
In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

This evening we celebrate the ascension of the risen Christ to heaven. 

Ascension Day is not, for most Christians, a day of great importance.  It’s the fortieth day after Easter.  There is no particular tradition associated with Ascension, nor is it a holiday around which families gathers.

And, it is a day of utmost importance in our faith story.  Without the Ascension, Jesus’ life – his incarnation, baptism, ministry, crucifixion, death and resurrection – without Ascension, his passion and life would stretch indeterminately out into time and space like a rocket ship into the cosmos…rather than Ascension standing as a conclusive witness to the dwelling of God in creation[1].

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams[2] uses this analogy: imagine what it is like when you first wake up in the morning.  When you turn on the light, all you can think of is how bright the light is.  Only gradually do your eyes adjust enough to make out what else is around the room.  Then, you are not thinking of the light. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, says Williams, are like that initial morning light - Jesus’ resurrected self was so blinding that the disciples could be conscious only of him.  The ascension, however, is that moment when the light itself recedes into the background.  It is through the light of Jesus that we see the rest of the world. As from Ephesians, “…that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.”[3]

With the creative use of light and reflection of colors, many artists have imagined the ascension.  Many of these scenes are painted inside the dome of churches. There are usually two parts – an upper (heavenly) part with Christ making the sign of benediction and the lower (earthly) part below him, signifying the entire Church (big C). 
Inside these churches, congregants, like those appointed witnesses, gaze up toward heaven to witness, once again, the ascension of Christ.  

One Ascension image stands out for me.  It is a stained-glass panel from a church in Norfolk, England,[4] dating from the 15th century.  You can pull this image out from your leaflet as we reflect together.
In the image, we see only the feet of Christ ascending into a blue cloud, which is surrounded in a glory of rays.  His feet display their wounds as they disappear into the cloud.  Just below, we see prominent footprints on the summit of the rocky mound from which Christ has ascended. 

Next to the rising feet are two con-celebrating angels, blessing the ascension of Jesus with their outstretched hands.  Below, the panel is crowded with the haloed heads of all twelve Apostles, with various hairstyles and expressions. In the center of the composition is the figure of Mary, richly dressed: she gazes up at her ascending son, holding up her hands with their slender fingers. (hold up hands).

The captivating image calls to mind both the divinity of Christ (with his feet ascending) and the humanity of Jesus (with his footprints on earth).  Since his feet were the last part of him to touch earth, it makes sense that the center of the image is his feet – also the last part to be visible as he was taken up to heaven.

This captivating image of ascending feet and printed feet perhaps informs us why there are two collects for Ascension day in the BCP[5].  One collect asks God to give us faith to perceive that Jesus abides with his church on earth. The other collect asks God to give us a belief that Jesus has ascended into heaven – and so there we may also ascend. Both perspectives, both petitions, both realities in one whole truth of God.

Practically speaking, this captivating image also calls to mind something my 12-step sponsor often asks me: Where are your feet?  Which is, of course, a rhetorical question, but a question that invites me to be present to this moment, not anxious about the future or resentful of the past Where are your feet? This image empowers us to know and see that our feet are joined by the invisible presence of Jesus; his footprints right beside us, infused with the power of his Spirit. 

Today’s Gospel concludes, …“they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”  As they were worshipping the ascending Jesus, and in returning to their life in Jerusalem and the temple, the disciples found their faith. A faith not in Jesus’ resurrection, but their experience of the Ascension, and the revelation of Jesus’ divinity. [6]  

See, it was not “…his death and resurrection that changed Jesus from the human from Nazareth to the Savior of the World.  It was his willingness to be spiritually alive forever – to be a Spirit set free from physical limitations.” [7]

·         The ascension for the disciples was that moment when Jesus receded into the background of heaven.
·         The ascension for us is that moment when Jesus’ light itself recedes into the background of our lives and through which we glimpse God’s kingdom.
·         The ascension gives our hearts enlightened eyes so that we may know the hope to which Jesus has called us.[8]
·         The ascension is a reminder that our lives are caught up in something far grander than we can ask or imagine.

In the whole sweep of God’s story of human salvation, the Ascension stands as a crucial moment, illuminating for us the larger story of God’s loving action. 

May we then, tonight, know God’s LOVE in the empty places of our lives where we need to be made whole, God’s YES in the yearning of our souls where we need to know we are enough, and God’s LIGHT in the dimness of our hearts where we can see Jesus’ feet standing beside us, galvanizing us to do God’s work in the world.

Tonight, as we gaze our eyes upward, may we see the feet of Christ ascending as we notice his footprints always beside us, to the end of the ages.
Amen


[1] Inspired by Joseph Britton’s Theological Perspective, Ephesians 1:15-23 in Feasting On The Word.

[2] Rowan Williams, Cowley Publications; 1st edition (March 28, 1995)

[3] Ephesians 1:18


[5] Book of Common Prayer, 226

[6] Joseph Plevnik, "The Eyewitnesses of the Risen Jesus in Luke 24," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 1987.

[7] The Rev. Rosemary Brown, Sent Forth By God’s Blessing, cited at http://day1.org/570-sent_forth_by_gods_blessing


[8] Ephesians 1:18