When they had gathered together they asked him, "Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He answered them, "It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.’ Then they return to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which Is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away (Acts 1:6-12).
Entering the Scene
Welcome to this last of our seven Stations and come, enter the scene. But know that this is a crowded scene. The lines following the above scripture name the eleven returning to the Upper Room after the Ascension: "Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James” (Acts 1:13). But we are no longer interested in a head count. The cosmic event that is the Ascension demands a new paradigm, one that is not bound by time, space, or numbers.
The early church came to realize this as it grappled with the implications of the Resurrection. One of their earliest concerns was for those who had died before the Christ event, their own parents, other loved ones who had died, the prophets of old, etc. Were they also saved by the redemption of Christ or had their coming before Christ excluded them from the hope of salvation? They took a Greek word, prolepsis, and assigned a peculiarly theological meaning to it. Prolepsis means anticipating (v.) or preconception (n.) and is, rather, the opposite of anachronistic with which we are more familiar. "Anachronistic” would have an outdated or older object placed in a much later setting—Captain Kirk using a pocket watch, for example. Proleptic works in the other direction, time-wise. Its most common (possibly, only) contemporary usage is as a debate term when one anticipates the coming argument and prepares for it with a countering argument. So, a proleptic, or current, rebuttal is used to refute an earlier assertion, reversing what came before. As a theological term, proleptic describes an event, the effects of which, work backward in time. It was appropriated to specifically describe the Resurrection. Early Christians came to the belief that Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection saved even those who had lived before Jesus did.
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You will see this frequently depicted in Orthodox icons of the Anastasis—Greek, referring to the resurrection, first, of Christ and then, of all others. This Anastasis icon is from the Greek Orthodox Monastery in Chora, Istanbul. It is a fresco in the apse of the funery chapel, c. 1310-1320. Here a powerful Christ, in resurrected glory, extends an arm to the wrists of each Adam and Eve to lift them from the depths of death. On the left, are an old King David and a younger King Solomon as well as John the Baptist. To the right is Abel, seen as a precursor to Christ, and a collection of the prophets. It is the concept being presented here that is significant. Having nothing to do with historicity, this painting makes a deep theological statement about the triumph of Christ over death and the saving effects for all humankind.
Perched as we are, these many centuries later, we ask the same questions as did these early Christians but with, perhaps, a different lens. Where their concerns were immediate and looked to the past, we are also immediate but more future oriented. Our immediate concern is, what has Jesus’ passion, death, resurrection and, now, ascension to the Father—what implication does any of this have to do with us today? Do we view it as a significant historical event? Is it something to be remembered and celebrated? Or is it more? Does it have an effecton us in the here and now—and beyond?
Getting into Character
So, the character we get to explore in this Station is ourselves, along with those with whom we share our particular life circumstances. Could we not, just as legitimately as the Anastasis iconographer, create a scene wherein those gathered around the Risen Christ, those witnessing, say, his Ascension, are our immediate family, our co-workers and neighbors, those alongside us at our church, children in a classroom, construction workers at a high rise, people caught in traffic, Asian workers in a rice paddy, a Brazilian soccer team, etc....? In terms of a theological statement, whom would we not include in the salvific effect of Jesus’ Resurrection? Might we have that same mighty figure of Jesus clasping the hands of generations yet unborn, drawing out of uncertainty, obscurity and fear, a hoped-for future for ourselves and for our world?
As Christians, we bring to bear two important beliefs: the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a foundational event that changes all things, and we are planted as part of God’s purpose in the time and place wherein we find ourselves. It is exactly at that nexus, that we are inheritors of Jesus’ words, "You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth” (vs.8). It is also at that nexus where the commission becomes uniquely our own. We are challenged to find relevancy and meaning for our own time, culture and generation. It falls to us, here and now, to discern the significance of the Christ event both for ourselves personally and as a transformative power within our own culture and time. Let us look, first, at what some contemporary theologians are doing with that latter focus. Then we will take a personal look.
A theological look …
Consider, first, what is unique to, what defines our own generation and culture? Certainly, our world is significantly changed from that of the early church. Geographically, the world, "the ends of the earth,” extends far beyond the Mediterranean world of Jesus’ time and embraces a variety of people and cultures then unknown. Historically, we have, for the most part, embraced the recognition of all men and women as equal and children of God and we have, conversely, slaughtered millions—often in the name of religion. Our lifetimes are 2 to 3 times what they were 2000 years ago with a level of healthcare that sustains that, though it is not available to all. Along with healthcare, we espouse and champion literacy, education, and self-determination for all—also far short of universal. Travel and the internet connect even the most remote corners of the globe. Scientifically, we conceptualize our planet as a tiny part of a much larger universe, we plumb the question of its origin and the origin of life itself. We recognize a discernible pattern of connectedness and evolution among all living things. Having defined the ground-breaking laws of physics, even these are now seen to be malleable in light of Relativity.
And we bring these new understandings of our world into the theological conversation around the Christ event. Seeing the universe as one interacting entity, we explore the implications of the Resurrection for all of creation, for all the natural world. Paul Tillich states, "Resurrection happens now or it does not happen at all. It happens in us and around us, in soul and history, in nature and universe. His bodily resurrection embraces all of biological existence. Jesus’ victory over death is a statement of hope for all creation—that humanity is not, the world is not meant for annihilation.” Similarly, Karl Rahner writes, "When the vessel of his body was shattered in death, Christ was poured out over all the world; he became actually, in his humanity, what he had always been according to his dignity, the heart of the world, the innermost center of Creation.”
Christians have always believed that Jesus Christ was, and is, at the center of creation. Paul wrote to the Colossians, "For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth…all things have been created through Him and for Him” (Col. 1:16). But with a new consciousness of what creation entails, comes a new awareness of what Jesus’ salvific action is all about. We are required to think beyond the confines of space, i.e. our own earthly bodies, to the expanse of the universe and all creation. We are required to think beyond the confines of time, i.e. the current moment and the received tradition from the past, and into a projected future where Christ also dwells in a new and empowering way. In her book, The Emergent Christ, Ilia D’Lio asks, "How do we understand Christ’s return with the belief that Christ is risen—not has risen or will rise, but is risen, now, in the present moment? Is Christ with us ‘to the end of time’ (Mt. 28:20)? What does this mean for us, for the earth, the planet, and the cosmos? The message of Easter is a claim that something new has come into the world from its future.” She also builds on the work of Teilhard de Chardin to use evolution as a paradigm for understanding God’s saving plan for humanity and the universe.
Some of these theological meanderings may be a little tough to wrap our mind around but consider this one image that changes our world view and understanding of self forever…
A personal look…
The post-Resurrection appearances allowed Jesus’ followers to arrive at belief. It is 50 days from the Jewish feast of Passover to the Jewish feast of Pentecost, so the interim of days may well have been about the 40 we celebrate from Easter to Ascension. A span of time was necessary for them to absorb what had happened —understandably. Now, yet another "something new” was about to happen. The followers were still expecting that Jesus, now returned to them, would stay and fulfil their messianic hopes (v. 6). What they did not yet know was how different would be the resurrected life. There had been glimmers…he was with them and then suddenly, he was not; he was at once familiar and dear yet they did not always recognize him.
The conundrum they were in at the Ascension is a larger, communal version of that moment of tension in Station Two when Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, "Do not cling to me for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (Jn. 20:17). The Ascension, the return to the Father, was somehow necessary beyond Mary’s understating or theirs—perhaps, ours. Without the Ascension, a Risen Jesus is still present and embodied within a particular place and time. It is only after and because of the Ascension, that Jesus is present in the "forever now” that is the experience of every generation and people. We have access to the Risen Lord, even as his followers did 2000 years ago. It is the Ascension that breaks the Christ event from the bonds of history and "converts” us. Convert means to "turn again.” We are turned again to the beginning, the original premise, the question of God’s purpose. It is the Ascension that reveals to us the eternal and cosmic proportions of the whole of the Christ Event.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not only an historical happening. It is not only a religious belief. It is certainly not simply our "ticket to heaven.” It both empowers us and challenges us. It is a game-changing realization that "God so loved the world…” It didn’t just happen then and it doesn’t only just happen now. It will continue to happen, to affect a future we can only imagine. It speaks to God’s divine purpose from all time to save that which was created out of love and destined by God for unity in love. All these centuries later, with a human balance sheet that is, at best, still questionable, God is still at work. We can question, we can marvel at the intransigence of the human heart and how long it takes for things to change. But, then, Jesus says to us as he did to them, "It is not for you to know the times or season.” Again, God is still at work.
At a time when the future of our planet seems in peril, largely because of our own actions, the Ascension of Christ to the Father raises our sights and reminds us that God has a purpose for all the natural world as well as for all peoples. There is hope. Admittedly, that hope requires our collaboration. Remember how every Witness to Resurrection cooperated in some way. Christ took the initiative but did not impose himself. There was an ordinariness about every appearance. These appearances did not take place in ecstasy, dreams, or visions. They did not stream trails of apocalyptic glory. Jesus came to them where they were and it took only the tacit acceptance of the believer for Christ to become known to them and interacting with them.
We live in a remarkable age. To live faithfully, to embody hope, to create a future for our children—these holy tasks do not come easily, nor are they always valued. But every age has met with challenges. Ours are unique; they are our own. And God put us here and uniquely equipped us for these challenges. Jesus comes to us as he did to his followers. The post-Ascension Jesus who lives beyond the bounds of time and space, is available to us now as he was to them in their time.
One of the joys of my ministry is the privilege of being able to distribute Communion. There are moments when I am aware that people come forward who are in a time of great difficulty, peril, hurt or need. I have stood there at funerals and offered the Bread saying to the person before me, "the Body of Christ.” I have felt personally insufficient, thinking, this is all I have to offer. But in their "Amen,” I have heard the response, "it is all I need.”
Bringing it Home
1. In our own lives, we sometimes remember an earlier, "better” time when things seemed simpler or easier. Yet lingering there can rob us of the joy offered in the present moment. It can also distract us from any intent toward a future for others. How do you see this mirrored in the Ascension story? Why do you think God seems always to be moving us forward? What does that tell you about hope? Does Jesus "leaving” the apostles somehow make him more available to all of us these many years later?
2.In May 2015, Pope Francis wrote a letter to the church and world, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home. In it, he draws attention to our stewardship for all our natural world. What parallels, if any, do you see between that and the universal implications of Resurrection? Does this challenge you? Do you welcome it?
3. If it is each generation’s unique challenge and privilege to mediate the Resurrection and its meaning to its own time, how is it different for us in this post-Darwin, post-Einstein, post-moonwalk world?
4. Looking back over these seven Stations, what was it like to spend the full seven weeks contemplating the Risen Jesus? Has it made a difference in your life?
Thank you is not enough, Lord, for all that you have done for me, but thank you is what I have to give. Thank you for your dying and your rising but thank you, too, for giving it to me right here, right now. Help me to never forget that I truly do belong to you and nothing can separate me from your great love. Help me to live with that truth living inside me. I love you, Jesus. Amen.
A personal note from Kathleen
If you have appreciated these Stations and would like to let Kathleen know or if you are interested in having Kathleen speak or lead a retreat for your group or church, please contact her via her website.