This week our lectionary readings focus on Jesus’ farewell. The reading from Acts 1 tells the story of the Ascension (which the church calendar observes this year on May 21), 40 days after Jesus’ resurrection. The Gospel reading is a section of what has become known as Jesus’ ‘Farewell Discourse’, the long speech he gave to his disciples before going to the cross.
In both readings there’s a sense of Jesus trying to prepare his friends and followers for life after his departure, so that they may carry on his work after he is gone.
When we think about the Ascension in Christian culture and church tradition, we see in our minds pictures of Jesus zooming up into the clouds, with the disciples left somewhat bewildered below. I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw this picture, of the Ascension Chapel in Walsingham, England. Protruding from the ceiling of the chapel is a golden rim of cloud, surrounding a patch of blue (presumably sky) with a pair of nail-pierced feet dangling through the ‘hole’ in the ceiling.
As an Australian (with a particular sense of humour) I guffawed at the image, but I wonder if the sculptor actually meant it to be funny. When I thought some more, it actually made me sad that the best image they could come up with to represent Jesus’ Ascension is an image of his feet. Jesus departed the earth and ascended to heaven to be with the Father, but he left very clear instructions about what should happen after he left.
The last words Jesus spoke before he was lifted up into the clouds (Acts 1:9) included a call to mission: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” There was no time for Jesus’ disciples to stand gazing into the sky. They had work to do. So do we. And we have the Holy Spirit to help us, as Jesus promised.