The Rev. Daniel Gutierrez
Today we celebrate Ascension Day. A major feast in our Church calendar, but one often overlooked. We jump from Easter to Pentecost, and seemingly ignore the celebration where the risen Christ takes his place at the right hand of God.
The act of Jesus being reunited with God is quite a significant event. So why the obscurity?
As a child, my recollection of the Ascension story was through the pictures in Sunday school books. The scene depicts clear skies, green meadows and 11 smiling Apostles waving at a floating Jesus, who is going up, up, up and away. I was quite stunned to see a similar floating Jesus at the Balloon Fiesta.
I suspect the reason Ascension Day resides in the festal shadows is that when Christ departs from this earth, we are each given a responsibility. Previously, in all our encounters with the living God, it is God who initiates and takes responsibility for the relationship.
At Christmas, the divine becomes incarnate and lives among us. At the Last Supper – he integrates us with his being. In the Cross and at Easter we discover the ultimate act of his love and thus the assurance of our inclusion in God’s eternal plan. At Pentecost – we are given the power of the spirit. Up until this point, we haven’t exerted much effort.
However, on Ascension Day, as Jesus is moving toward God, we are given the ultimate going way present: we are entrusted with the continuation of his message and presence. His last words on this earth are: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Think of the enormity of the trust. The divine, the creator, our God - asks each one of us – to be his witness on earth. So for every word he spoke, every action he carried out, we must live it and proclaim it to those who do not know him. We must love not only God, but love one another. We are asked to become Christ to the world.
And God truly believes that we can do it. If not, why would he ask it of us? Think of this world if the disciples would have kept looking for Christ in the clouds? What if they sat around and waited for Jesus to return; hoping that he would come back and continue to do all the work?
What if Paul ignored Christ message and went into a lucrative tent making business in Athens. Or if John embarked on the healing or speaking circuit in order to amass a fortune. If Peter decided to go along with Nero’s policies and quietly retired on a hilltop villa in Rome?
Even more disturbing - if the assembled followers thought of Jesus only on Sunday and forgot about him the rest of the week. After all, Jesus was not around. Who would know? What difference would it make? It made a world of difference. Followers of Christ stand out for helping the poor, the oppressed, the sick, and the excluded. They gave Christ a voice in the world when other voices were silent. Why? Because as Jesus ascended, his love descended. He left part of himself in the world.
There is a story of a man who learned he was going blind. He was a great lover of art; his career was dedicated to the preservation of great pieces. As his sight began to fail, the man booked a plane to Amsterdam and spent a week in the Van Gogh museum. Each day he stood for hours upon end looking at each of the paintings. He wanted these images to soak into this brain as his last visual images.
So on that hilltop, all the assembled men, women and children did not wave goodbye, they soaked the image of Jesus into their beings. They kept the vision of his physical being, but also his teachings, presence and grace. Jesus was infused into their minds and his memory was etched in their hearts. The Apostles instituted the practice of Christ rather than the terminology of religion.
Christ’s followers became blind to the world and made Christ their vision. He was on their lips, in their hearts and on their minds. They did not forget. When their faith was challenged, they remembered his wounds. When afraid, they remembered his loving embrace. When angry, they remembered the way he played with children, and cried with Martha and Mary.
Jesus colored their lives, so when their hearts hardened, the Apostles remembered how Jesus touched the sick and accepted outcasts at his table. When lonely, recalled how Christ laughed out loud. When they could not go on, they heard his voice saying he would never leave their side. The Ascension recalls that we are not left behind; we have the opportunity reflect his light.
My favorite depiction of the ascension is a 19th century print. The sky is cloudy and dark, and in the middle of the clouds is a break, as if someone had punched a hole in the darkness. Rays of light illuminate men, women, children, short, tall, young, and the elderly.
The light of Christ shines on each one. Their faces radiate, they seem transformed – as if they were becoming something new. The love in their hearts seems to leap off the page.
That print reminded me of the hour immediately following a heavy downpour. The dark massive clouds blanket the sky. Yet for a moment, through a small break in the clouds, white shafts of afternoon sunlight hit the Rio Grande Valley. The light is soft, yet bright and it allows you to see details of the earth that are often hidden from our daily sight.
The greens and blues on the west mesa are revealed. The escarpment becomes a vivid black; the edges and canyons of the Sandia Mountains expose their depth and beauty. For a few seconds something new is revealed. Then suddenly the clouds close, the light shifts and then it is gone.
In a stable in Bethlehem, a hole was punched in the darkness of sin; the light became flesh and dwelt among us. In Jesus’ Ascension, a hole was punched in the darkness of humanity, and the earth was illuminated in a light that allowed us to see the world, and one another in a different way.
By his Ascension we are given the responsibility to take the light the Apostles first carried to the ends of the earth. To illuminate Christ message of love, faith, acceptance. Not only to those we like or those we know, but to everyone.
For when we enter into his light, it is not some vague, random occurrence. It is a conscious choice that we must reaffirm. Christ is calling us to be his witness. In this sanctuary, in our homes, communities, and in this nation.
This responsibility is not only for Priests, Deacons or the devoutly religious; Jesus asks each one of us carry it. We all are graced with the same inherent collective memory of Christ. Like the
Apostles, Jesus is infused into our minds, his memory etched in our hearts. It is who we are. We are created in his image; we are claimed by him at Baptism. So deep inside we hear his voice of acceptance, feel his love without conditions - it is who we are.
Many ask “how can I bring Christ into this world?” Justice, equality and acceptance are what love looks like in a public setting. Bring forth his light. If you question if you can truly make a difference in Christ’ name, try it, one person at a time. Jesus encountered people individually, and they were transformed one loving action at a time. Those he transformed reached out to others and they too were transformed. It spread to the ends of the earth.
If each one of us makes a conscious effort to punch holes in the darkness, in the name of justice, acceptance and love, the brilliance of Christ’s light would diminish the sun. When we punch holes in the clouds for the forgotten, we might have the ability to recognize the plight on a homeless 3 year old child, sitting in a darkened playground with a distressed mother, before the dark finality of despair overcomes the light of hope.
So today as we contemplate Jesus moving toward God, become the messengers of his light, of his love. Take this gift of responsibility, and make a difference in the world. Shine your light on those instances of bigotry, exclusion and hate. Your love in the name of Christ can punch holes through the darkest clouds of injustice. One person at a time, one encounter at a time, one loving action upon another. Your light can reflect his beauty to the world.