May 5th is the Feast of the Ascension. When it falls in the middle of the week its celebration generally transfers to Sunday—that’s what’s happening here at Zion. The Ascension is too important a holy day to lose amidst the march of festivals, fasts, holy days, etc.
And as I type this post I see Gmail, Facebook, and GMX browser tabs getting little numbers on them. The numbers of people posting and emailing are on the rise—-they ascend. Some days that rise in numbers lifts me up; feeds my ego, making me feel sought after, valued, and worthy. Other days that rise in numbers drags me down; makes me feel hounded, trapped, incapable of escape.
We are a people of “ups” and “downs,” a people of “highs” and lows,” a people of competition. Don’t we strive to rise to the top? Don’t we often feel crushed at something other than first place? Don’t we want to win the Emmy, the Grammy, the Pulitzer? I mean, who really ever goes out and says, “Put me in last place. Set me down.”
We are a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps people,” aren’t we? We are a “take her/him down a peg” people if we see another rising above us, aren’t we? We are chart toppers! We are not chart-bottomers after all!
Aren’t we after whatever we can find to raise us up? New job? New house? New dog? New spouse? We aren’t after things that pull us down are we? Pink slip? House fire? Dog death? Divorce?
Who can blame us for wanting to ascend above it all? There is nothing wrong with wanting to rise up to better spaces. But isn’t our challenge found in this phrase, “I’ll pull myself up by my own bootstraps?” Isn’t this phrase about us pulling ourselves up by our own doing, our own agency, our own will? That looks at ton like a Feast of the Ascension of Self and very little like the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus, doesn’t it?
In Luke’s gospel, it is recorded that:
44Then he [Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (NRSV, Luke 24:44-53)
Jesus says, “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” It seems that “power from on high” is not “power from the self.” It seems that power from on high is not coming from us as its source. And it even seems that this power clothes us—as in it is put on us. It is not something we attain and put on ourselves. That seems abundantly clear in v. 49.
So much of theology taught these days says something along the order of God rewards us as we put it (what ever it is) on ourselves, doesn’t it? Seems like so much of theology these days makes it about us getting more power and more stuff and this totally by our own doing which motivates God to reward us, right???
That seems like a bunch of unhealthy crap to me. But—that unhealthy theological crap is plenty popular, isn’t it? It seems to paint a picture that Jesus is way up there somewhere and we must somehow attain to similar heights. It seems to place value on or in things distant and seemingly absent rather than place value on or in things present and near.
In first grade it seemed that swinging on the swing set until the poles started to lift up out of the ground made me feel powerful and mighty. It seemed in the twelfth grade that having a 100 average in Spanish, higher than the rest, made me powerful and mighty. It seemed in the conception of children, as a younger man, I felt a bit higher than the rest, making me feel powerful and mighty. These are some of my moments—yes, all gifts from God—but at times believed to be my own doing—totally products of my own sense of ascension of self. What are your moments seen by you as your moments of ascension of self? You have them you know, don’t you?
Allow me, perhaps, to help you find them.
- Where do you compete against others?
- Where do you compare others to yourself?
- Where do you judge others against your image?
- Where do others compete against you?
- Where do others compare you against themselves?
- Where do others judge your image against their image?
Judgments. Competitions. Comparisons. Aren’t these often ways we use to seek our next height? Or next wrung on the ladder? Or next leg of the race?
And aren’t these also the mechanisms that create isolations? Don’t they set us apart? Set us away from others? Set us outside of community? And, sometimes, don’t they become attempts to set us apart from God?
Aren’t these marks of a life that is formed from seeking the ascension of self?
And doesn’t this stand, stark and oppositional, against the light of this portion of the Ascension Day’s epistle text which says:
20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (NRSV, Ephesians 1: 20-23)
Clearly then, this business of ascension is about ascension of Jesus and not about ascension of self. Clearly, it is Jesus who is “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Clearly then, ascension of self is the opposite of the ascension of Jesus.
This is because what we are talking about here is Jesus as being present rather than absent. There is no vacuum of presence created by the ascension of Jesus that requires its filling to had in us. Jesus, “fills all in all.” Our ascension of self is our own creation of competition which strives to fill that which is filled in, by, with, and through Jesus. What seems a matter of location is, in reality, a matter of relationship. The relationship of Jesus to all things transcends locational factors.
Resurrection of Jesus meets its fulfillment in Ascension of Jesus. Jesus has a bodily resurrection and that human fleshly body of Jesus ascends and takes its place beside the Father. Flesh is taken into a place where flesh could not have gone. Humanity finds a place in God’s heaven: “seated at the right of the Father.”
How does our ascension of self square against that reality? There is no height to be further taken—for human flesh has reached its apex in Jesus. Jesus has placed human flesh—my flesh, your flesh, everyone’s flesh in the fullness of the presence of God. We are already as high as can be attained. There’s our up. So, where’s our down?
Well, being duly placed, and this not of our own doing, we’ve only one direction to go—down.
And what will pull us there? Our competitions? Our comparisons? Our judgments?
- sense of entitlement?
- need to be right?
- need for control?
- unwillingness to forgive and be forgiven?
- addiction (to so much more than just drugs)?
- (fill in this blank)?
Perhaps Newtonian physics would label these the “force of gravity” which pulls us down. Of course, we’d be keen to deny that this “force of gravity” is of our own making, would be quick to say is the result of our environment, our circumstances, another’s handiwork. But deep inside us, don’t we really know that the source of the force of gravity which pulls us down is centered completely in us? There’s our down. And, therein lies grace—this is also again, our up.
The force of gravity which pulls us down also shows us the way in which the ascension of Jesus draws us up. It shows us the direction to go. It’s like a two lane road—one side takes you to one direction and the other side brings you to another. The ascension of Jesus shows you which side of the road you travel, and it offers you the road to the Father. And this is very, very good news.