"When Jesus had said this [and told the apostles that they would be his witnesses], as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.' Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day's journey away."
--Acts 1: 9-12
At the intersection of 10th Avenue and 20th Street in New York City is the Church of the Guardian Angel. All along the edge of the roof are frescos narrating various scenes in the Bible. When you reach the end of the Gospels you see the faces of the apostles looking upward, and all you see at the top are a pair of feet dangling there. It’s totally adorable--one of my favorite depictions of the Ascension!
Depiction of the Ascension by Kulmbach (1521). This is not the one at Guardian Angel Church, but note the feet at the top.
I told y’all last week I would be posting on the Ascension, and I’m a man of my word! The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ takes place 40 days after Easter Sunday, always falling on a Thursday, which means many church only get to remember it on the following Sunday. It’s a high holy day on our calendar, when we celebrate that scene in the fresco where Jesus goes back up into heaven, back to glory and majesty, and the apostles stand there looking at his feet. But then what happens? Out of nowhere, as the apostles are gazing toward heaven, watching Jesus go with their mouths gaped open, two men in white robes—presumably angels—grab their attention. “Men of Galilee,” they say, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” And after that call back to reality, Luke tells us the apostles returned to Jerusalem and devoted their time to praying together.
But they needed to be called back. The angels might as well have said, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” Jesus has gone back to heaven, now what are you gonna do about it? They wanted to preserve the moment. They likely would’ve been content to just keep staring at the soles of Jesus’ feet as the clouds overtook him. But this is not what Jesus wanted. He never asked his followers to focus all their attention on admiring him. Instead he called them into action, over and over again. Even now, in this moment as they watch him go into heaven, the apostles need to be reminded of that. Stop staring! Go and put everything you have witnessed into action!
Sometimes we modern followers of Jesus fall into the same trap as the apostles. We stare up at the sky and wait on Jesus, forgetting that he has empowered us to do the work that he began; that is, sharing the Good News that the kingdom of God is here right now. I suspect this has something to do with the fact that we are unable to remember our unity with God. It is that very unity for which Jesus prays in the Fourth Gospel:
"'And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.'”
--John 17: 11
Alone in the garden, waiting for his arrest and eventual death, Jesus prays to God the Father on behalf of those whom he says are "in the world." He prays that God will protect them and that they may be one as Jesus and God are one. That oneness isn’t about following the same doctrine or always agreeing on certain issues. It means knowing in their souls that God is in them, the same way Jesus knew God was in him. Such a prayer was not just for those 12 who were called apostles by Jesus, nor was it simply the hundreds who followed him day after day. That prayer is for every man, woman, and child trudging through this dark and difficult world. It is for you, me, and them! He knew where he was going, so he prayed that the rest of us would remember our unity with God, that God is in us, and if God is in us then we can do even greater things than Jesus himself did. Those aren't my words, they're Jesus':
"'Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father.'"
--John 14: 12
But we forget this, don’t we? We forget that oneness, and we end up petering out. Eventually we just throw our hands up, look into the sky, and wait around. When we remember that we are one with God, though, we also remember, as Teresa of Avila said back in the 16th century: “Christ has no body but ours. No hands or feet on earth but ours. Ours are the eyes with which he looks compassion upon this world.” Teresa got it all those years ago! She knew that it's up to us to be Jesus to others, to be active with our faith. This leads us to pray together, as the apostles did after the Ascension, and to work together to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and preach Good News to the poor and outcast, as they did. Hers was (and still is) a call to be mindful, day in and day out, that we are one with God.
Teresa of Avila, 16th century Carmelite nun who reminds us all that Christ has no hands or feet but ours.
A while back, amidst all of the chaos of our social and political climate, I saw a few Facebook posts from folks saying things like, “We need to pray for Jesus to come back and fix all of this!” No!! That’s not how this Christianity thing works! If you’re unhappy with the way the world is operating, pray about it, and then go put your prayer into action. That's what the apostles did! That's what the early Church was all about, putting prayer into action. The Church is still about this. This is why we, as the Church, exist! We are still the community of Christ. We are his hands and feet. We are his compassion, meant to be shared with the world. We are not passive. We may be waiting expectantly FOR Jesus to return, but we not waiting ON Jesus to fix everything; after all, he has prayed for all of us that we may be one with God, and if we are one with God then there is nothing that will stop us from transforming this world with God’s redemptive love working through our own hands,feet, and hearts!
We dare not forget, brothers and sisters! We dare not forget that Jesus’ prayer that night in the Garden was for us. We dare not stand around and wait. Let’s get out there and be Jesus for our time, just as the apostles were in their time. Don’t just stand there. Let’s do something!