Preached on May 25, 2017 (Ascension Day), at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Seattle.
A few months ago I felt a strong desire to talk to my mother. This is not a problem, really, except that my mother has been dead for twenty years. So I talked to my therapist about it, and he led me through an empty-chair exercise.
This was not a séance, but it had some of the trappings of one. The therapist stood up, opened the office door, and beckoned my mother into the office. Once she was seated in the empty chair and the therapist had welcomed her into the room, he invited me to speak to her.
I sat there, silent, for a really long time, feeling self-conscious, and a little bit silly. But then I started talking, and as I went along, I discovered that I was having a hard time looking her in the eyes. What eyes, you might ask. But if you’ve ever done this exercise, maybe you can relate to the feeling. For some reason, the area of the chair where her eyes would be—the general area around the headrest—had an intense energy. My mother wasn’t physically in the room, and yet this exercise helped me speak to her. Near the end I did finally look at her directly, and I finished our conversation by saying, with feeling, “It’s really good to see you.”
Perhaps this exercise just helped me psychologically externalize the collection of memories in my mind that add up to “mother.” I realize that if anyone was sitting in that empty chair, it was me, or a part of me. But it worked. I truly felt that I had a chance to say what I needed to say. I felt better.
And then, after it was over, I felt a little frustrated. After it was over, the chair was truly empty. I felt a pang of grief that I couldn’t really talk to my mother, because her conscious self was not there, or if it was, I didn’t have the gift of knowing for sure that it was there. And if she has a body, it is a new, heavenly one that my mortal eyes cannot see. And so I experienced the feeling of looking in vain for someone who is gone, knowing the whole time that they are going to stay gone, however hard I might look.
“Suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’”
This is a rhetorical question. The men in white robes do not really want to know why the apostles were standing there, gazing the skies for Jesus. The men in white robes were there to encourage them to go back into the city, to move forward, to find Jesus not where he had left them, but in their futures as Gospellers, those who bring the Good News to others.
But maybe that sky still had an intense energy, kind of like the headrest of my mother’s empty chair. If I were telling their story, I would say that the men in white robes were more sympathetic, and I would have them say something like, “Men of Galilee, we know why you stand looking up toward heaven. We understand.”
Luke gives us two accounts of the Ascension, one in his Gospel and another in the Acts of the Apostles. In the Gospel, the apostles return to the city in great joy. But my heart is drawn to the version in Acts, when they don’t automatically rejoice at the physical departure of their friend, and they don’t immediately rush into the future without the ability to touch and speak to him. This version seems more sympathetic to all the rest of us who never met Jesus in person. I think it’s okay if we stand looking up toward heaven a bit. If you feel an absence, I understand.
I’d love to meet Jesus face to face.
But despite the absence of God that we might understandably feel, we do meet Jesus, risen and ascended. We find him in other people and other things, in the bread and wine that becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, in the bathwater that becomes the living water of Holy Baptism, in the bodies and labors of our neighbors, and ourselves. That’s where we find Jesus now.
Whenever we begin a liturgy of Holy Eucharist, the presider sings, “Let us pray,” and after a moment of silent prayer, the presider collects all our prayers into a Collect, which we pronounce in that odd way so that it becomes a noun, distinct from the verb ‘to collect.’ And this is what we prayed in our opening Collect tonight: “…our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.” Our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things. Christ is not far away in a shiny city above the clouds. Christ is right here, because he ascended into this assembly of people. We are the first and most powerful sign of his presence tonight. He ascended into other things, of course. We revere a gilded book of Gospels because we find Christ in them (maybe you saw me casting incense on that book a moment ago—that’s why we do that). We share in this meal of thanksgiving, and find Christ there, too, perhaps most powerfully and tangibly. But we first reverence one another with bows and incense because we proclaim the mystery that Christ fills us, fills our lives, fills our bodies, fills our relationships, fills our vocations, fills our health and our disease, fills our moments of joy and our moments of sorrow, our moments of terror and our moments of anger, our moments of delight and our moments of deep peace… and Christ who was crucified ascends even into the moment of our death.
The apostles saw him and spoke to him and embraced him. They were traumatized by his death, and both terrified and gladdened by his resurrection. (Jesus was kind of an intense friend to have.) Jesus was there.
But he is also here.
Nine days separate us from the Day of Pentecost, the day when we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the women and men who knew Jesus and carried his movement into the world. On that day, they were filled with grace and power, and confidently proclaimed the Good News to many thousands of people. We share in that Spirit, for she descends upon us in Holy Baptism, and enlivens the whole universe with the love of God. But we do not always feel the Spirit, in a similar way that we do not always sense the palpable presence of Christ in all things. And so the Church offers us a nine-day opportunity for prayer—the fancy word for this is novena—during which we are invited to pray for the descent of the Spirit. I invite you to join me in this. Your way of praying for the Spirit may be different from mine. Mine is pretty simple: each day, I plan to simply pray, “Come, Holy Spirit.”
I know that when I find her, I will recognize her in my embrace of you.
Lectionary: Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53