Taken up

In some of the older churches in Europe, you can see a round opening in the ceiling, right above the altar. Some call it the Holy Spirit hole. In medieval times, a small Christ figure would be pulled up through it on Ascension Day, forty days after Easter. The Christ figure, made of wood or ceramic, would stand on the altar, with a rope tied around it. When the story was read of how Christ was taken up to heaven, liturgical stage hands up in the attic pulled in the rope and Christ went up and vanished from sight.

Ten days later, on Pentecost, members of the worship committee were again up in the attic and waited for just the right moment in the reading from Acts to lower a white dove carved from wood through the hole, followed by showers of red flower petals falling on the congregation like little flames. In some towns, the people responsible for special effects during the liturgy dropped a live white dove through the hole, and you can imagine the whole congregation looking up and watching it fly, wondering what the bird or the Holy Spirit might be up to. And in some churches, the showers of flower petals were followed by showers of almonds, nuts, raisins, and other sweet delights – the joy of heaven come down to earth, for all to taste and see.

The Reformation put an end to such theatrical gospel illustrations, in some places more successfully than in others no more statues ascending and descending, no more treats from the Holy Spirit hole for the children of Protestants.

You have probably seen depictions of the Ascension paintings in museums, stained glass windows and frescoes in churches, art projects in Vacation Bible School. The old masters show Jesus floating upward in flowing robes, clouds around his feet, while the disciples look up, their faces expressing a wide range of emotions from fear to wide-eyed wonder and devotion. In one painting from the early16th century, the body of Jesus has all but disappeared, and at the upper edge of the frame, you can only see the hem of his robe and his feet, still bearing the marks of his crucifixion.[1] It looks like his toes would disappear any moment now, and then the disciples would be on their own again.

All the stories that tell us about encounters between the disciples and the Risen One reflect experiences of absence and sudden presence, of Jesus appearing, abiding, and disappearing. Coming to know Jesus as risen is a matter of familiarity and loss, of grief and joy, of expectation and surprise. You could say that the fact that we celebrate seven Sundays of Easter, is a reflection of this process: the resurrection of Christ is a truth that takes time to sink in; it challenges our ways of seeing and thinking and knowing; it is a reality we cannot fully grasp, but are nevertheless invited to enter.

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses,” the Risen One taught the disciples. Then he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. Luke describes the disciples as standing there, gazing up to where they last saw Jesus, when suddenly two men in white robes appear, as they did on Easter morning, and ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” For forty days – in biblical lingo that means a good long time – Jesus had presented himself alive to them, appearing to them and speaking with them about the kingdom of God. The painful absence after his death on the cross had turned into new life; it was a roller coaster of joy and confusion, of faith and doubt, and just when they thought they knew him again like they hadn’t known him before, just when they thought that maybe now the world was ready for God’s kingdom to be restored in glory, the one who was supposed to take the throne slipped away again. No wonder they looked intently to where they had last seen him; it was like their world had a hole in it in the shape of their hope.

What makes absence hurt, what makes it ache, is the memory of what used to be there but is no longer, writes Barbara Brown Taylor.

Absence is the arm flung across the bed in the middle of the night, the empty space where a beloved sleeper once lay. Absence is the child’s room now empty and hung with silence and dust. Absence is the overgrown lot where the old house once stood, the house in which people laughed and thought their happiness would last forever. [2]

Where do you turn when your sense of God’s presence suddenly vanishes?  Where do you turn when the visible becomes invisible, the tangible, intangible; the answer, a question; the presence, an absence?

Luke tells us that Jesus didn’t go away, but that he was taken up. Paul writes that God exalted Jesus and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.[3] God has exalted Jesus – the same Jesus who ate and drank with sinners, who suffered and died in shame – God has exalted Jesus as Lord. The friend of sinners is seated on the throne of heaven.

And we? What about us? What are we supposed to do now? “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” says Jesus; “and you will be my witnesses.” The absence will again become powerful presence, and we will be witnesses of the love that has found us; we will be messengers of reconciliation; we will announce the Lord’s reign to the ends of the earth. Our gaze is stuck on that spot behind the cloud where we last perceived God’s presence in the person of Jesus, and the heavenly messengers gently redirect our attention down to earth.

It’s no use looking up if it’s him we want to see. He will come to us. In the meantime, our attention needs to be where his attention was when he walked on the earth. On the margins of our communities where life is far from flourishing. On the poverty of purse and of spirit that drains us of life and keeps us from recognizing each other as brothers and sisters in the one household of God. We let his attention direct ours, we do what he taught us to do, and we wait. He will come to us.

We will be clothed with power from on high. Or so he told them, so he told the few who would become his apostles. But those were different times, simpler times, we imagine. For them, back in those days, it was just natural to believe in the promises of God and follow, and they, of course, weren’t nearly as busy as we are—or so we like to think. Annie Dillard has written beautifully about this odd assumption:

A blur of romance clings to our notions of “publicans,” “sinners,” “the poor,” “the people in the marketplace,” “our neighbors,” as though of course God should reveal himself, if at all, to these simple people, these Sunday school watercolor figures, who are so purely themselves in their tattered robes, who are single in themselves, while we now are various, complex, and full at heart. We are busy. So, I see now, were they. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead — as if innocence had ever been — and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been. There have been generations which remembered, and generations which forgot; there has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day.[4]

No need, then, to paint the past in a rosy glow, whether it’s the days of the apostles or the years of innocence when tall steeples went up like grass after a spring rain. There is no one but us. There never has been. Us and the promise of God. Us and the promise that God is at work in the world. Us and the promise that we will be clothed with power from on high and be just right – just right, you and me, just right to participate in Christ’s continuing mission to the ends of the earth.

Jesus has been taken up, and now his presence is no longer restricted by the boundaries of time and space. Now he is available to all people everywhere, all of the time, through the Holy Spirit. He has been taken up, not away. He has been exalted to a place of powerful presence. Still bearing in his resurrection body the wounds of our sin, Jesus has been taken up into the heart of God. And from the heart of God, the Spirit pours forth like a shower of sweet almonds and raisins, foretaste of the world to come, and the work of redemption continues: In the company of Christ’s witnesses we proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name, we seek to embody Christ’s compassion and obey his law, we walk in his way of humble service and declare his justice to the nations until he comes.

Christ has shown us that the movement of God is not up and away from the world, but ever closer to the world and deeper into its brokenness in order to heal it.

Christ bears in his body the wounds of our sin and the pain of creation, and he carries them into the heart of God, where all that is broken is healed and life is renewed.

And out of the heart of God flows the Spirit like a healing river to inspire and empower us to participate in God’s movement in the world, serving, healing, forgiving, and reconciling in Christ’s name.


[1] https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/110001279

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Boston: Cowley, 1995), 75.

[3] Philippians 2:9-11

[4] Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 56-57.

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