Sunday, June 8, 2014


This week, we celebrated the “Ascension of Jesus” into heaven (Luke 24:50-53 - Mark 16:19 – Acts 1:9-11), which occurred 40 days after his resurrection in the biblical narrative. It is the commemoration of the strong and long-standing belief that Jesus was fully taken up into heaven, resurrected body and all, so that the Holy Spirit might be sent “who will teach you all things.”

Back in the 1970’s I remember going to a beach in California called Goat Rock. In order to get there, you had to wind your way along the cliffsides for a time before descending to the beach itself. At one of the parking areas on top, we had stopped to watch a hang glider laboriously assemble his flimsy contraption. After about 30 minutes, he was ready, put on his helmet, strapped himself in, and waddling to the edge of the cliff stood poised, looking over the ocean ahead and the beach way below. He said: “Okay. Bye.” and then stepped out into nothing.

I had expected him to drop straight down and then rise up, like a jet taking off from a carrier. But instead something amazing happened. He hadn’t quite stepped off. He had leaned over into the wind that was coming up the side of the cliff. Then he turned the wings of the glider just so, and he rose straight up as if he were standing on an invisible elevator. The rest of us just gawked as he went higher and higher. After a while, I looked around expecting someone to say “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into the sky?” (Luke 1:11) It was as nice an ascension as I have ever witnessed.

Who knows what the experience with Jesus was like, except for what we know from Scripture and the Church’s tradition? But if I can use that hang-glider analogy, there is an element of genuine, practical trust involved in all of this. When the young man leaned over the cliff, into the invisible wind, he placed his trust in what he knew to be true, and because he took that leap of faith, ascension happened and he was carried up by that which cannot be seen but can be felt and noticed by what it touches. Similarly, God’s grace manifested in Jesus Christ cannot be easily seen, but it is felt and experienced by its effect and impact on others, if not on oneself. The ascension teaches me to be open to God’s life, God’s breath, AKA the Holy Spirit (from the Hebrew Ruah, meaning breath or wind), to step out into God’s arms and trust the Spirit to be present, whatever the circumstances. It is that descent of the Holy Spirit which we celebrate next Sunday at Pentecost, an event that Jesus’ ascension initiated.

Anthony Bloom says it well: “We no longer know Christ according to the flesh, we do not touch Him as Thomas did, we do not hear and see Him as Apostles and the women, and all crowds of people did, but we know the Christ of the Spirit, the risen and ascended Christ, who is everywhere where two or three are gathered together, who is everywhere when a lonely soul cries for Him, when a life is being dedicated to Him. And so we are confronted with this mystery of a separation, which is a victory, a separation, which leads us to a new knowledge, to a new discovery of Christ. His Divinity is no longer veiled for us by His human presence, He is revealed to us as God resplendent not only in His Godhead but also in His humanity. And so it happens also all the time when people meet on a human level and then discover one another in the Holy Spirit, a discovery that makes humanity resplendent with eternity.”

In the end, the Ascension of Jesus is about embracing the life of God in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, and being carried by his love and example into being and doing the same for one another. No hanglider or elevators are necessary. Just lean over into the life of the Holy Spirit and tilt your wings correctly.