The other gospels and Paul’s letters also have their own variations on this time-line. It was not seen as a contradiction, however, when these various books were written, like we sometimes worry about today – not a proof it didn’t happen, but, much the opposite. They each told the truth, to local communities, in the experience their communities needed to hear them. Harmonizing the chronology was not an issue. So they too were playful with the stories, even as their lives were deeply being transformed, in all seriousness.
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” the two men in white robes say to the disciples. “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” In the 3 storied world of the disciples, heaven was above their flat earth, the evil spirits below, but all three were interconnected, one cosmos created by God. Thus the ascension is not about Jesus’ absence but about his presence in the world, in a new way. When the messengers reorient the disciples gaze back to the world, then they remembered Jesus’ instruction, that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” And so “they return to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet,” and make ready, in this in between time, in the upper room.
40 days. 50 days. A week of weeks. If you’re not the kind to remember dates, but are still interested in the meaning of history, know this, that though Jesus doesn’t send us a church year calendar to follow, Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit to empower us. Jesus tells us to wait for it, whenever we have that upward gaze, that blank stare of confusion. There are times for waiting and discerning in prayerfulness, and there are times for action, when we are empowered by God and one another. In either case, now, after the resurrection, Jesus is present with us in the world in a new way.
The best illustration I can think of is the movie, “Dead Poet’s Society.” It takes place in the early 50’s at a New England prep school for boys, which is the perfect device to epitomize the conformity of the time that the boys are under. Their English Lit teacher, played by Robin Williams, is a breath of fresh air for these young students. He captures the boys’ imaginations by teaching them in parables, using vivid images, and even has them act out some of their lessons. He makes language come alive for them with great power. That’s when they form a club they call the “Dead Poet’s Society.” In their own dark and secret upper room outside of class, they share poems, and amongst themselves, they find power and meaning in their lives.
But one day, when one of the boys uses his newly awakened gift of acting, and takes a part in the school production of Shakespeare, against the express wishes of his father, the story takes a tragic turn. Of course the father finds out, and not only does he yank the son from performing in the play, but also informs him he plans to take him out of the prep school altogether and enroll him in a military academy. When the boy protests to his father that he never listens to his feelings, the father says, okay, tell me. This is Neil’s moment, but after a long pause, he mutters that he doesn’t feel anything. Later that night, Neil sneaks out, not to the Dead Poet’s Society secret room, but to his fathers study, there to use his dad’s gun on himself.
Adding insult to injury, the headmaster of the school makes a scapegoat out of John Keating, the unorthodox English lit teacher. One by one, he brings the boys into his office and makes them sign a confession to the effect that it was all Mr. Keating’s fault. The movie ends with the boys raising a protest in their new class, but it’s a day late and a dollar short. When they had the power to stand up for their hero, and refuse to sign the false confession, they let can’t find their tongues. Their Pentecost moment was missed.
This waiting time between Ascension Day and Pentecost, is a moment we get to remember where the power comes from to stand up to the powers of evil and oppression in our world, and to seize the moment. God is calling us to enact the Easter-Pentecost drama, with a youthful playfulness. We belong to a, “Risen Lord Society,” and are empowered to tell the truth about this abundant life we share – the presence of Christ with us in ever new and fruitful ways.
Bishop Tom Wright has said that, “The [disciples] believed that ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ are the two interlocking spheres of God’s reality, and that the risen body of Jesus is the first (and so far the only) object which is fully at home in both (‘heaven’ and ‘earth’), and hence in either, anticipating the time when everything will be renewed and joined together.”
The ascension is not about Jesus’ absence but about his presence in the world in a new way. We are given times of waiting and discerning in our lives. And we are given times of empowerment. We pray that we may have the wisdom to know the difference, and that we may have the playfulness to try on our power, the power of Christ’s life that has conquered death, in a forgiving love and unity with one another.