Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
The feast of the Ascension brings to a close the forty day season of Easter, which itself is a climax to the forty day preparatory period of Lent. The purpose of the Ascension is to mark the transition of Jesus from Incarnate God back to the original Cosmic Omnipresnt Being. At least that is the theological perspective.
But there is something missing in all of this, for in my lifetime I have seen a steady decline, not merely in the observance of the Ascension feast, but also in the significance of this event in moderna day experience of our salvation history.
In part I suppose this due to the fact that “ascension” works better in a flat earth cosmology where there is only one direction one can ascend in. Knowing we live on a sphere, and then discovering the vast insignificance of that sphere in the Universe makes the ascension almost impossible for twenty-first century minds to process on any cognitive level.
Besides this, asking “Where did he go?” is at once a locational as well as a dimensional conundrum and to go from here to geo-physical explanation becomes a flight of fanciful sophistry.
Simply from these few sentences you can see that it is easy to ascend into such etheric speculation as to begin to feel just a tad trippy. That is why I come to the Ascension looking for an anchor and some ballast. If I, as a global, galactic human am to understand this feast at all I will have to angle into its significance in a way that is relevant to my context.
The ascension is at its heart the conclusion of the Incarnation. How does one grasp that then without feeling utterly bereft of all the gift and consolation that Emmanuel brought us at the Christ Mass? As I scoured the passage for some sign I noticed that Luke is very specific in telling his readers,”he led them out as far as Bethany”.
Why did he lead them out as far as Bethany?
Bethany is the place of consolation, community and care for Jesus. The home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, was his refuge and at the same time the prototypical church community.
If Jerusalem is the city that “stones the prophets” and which refuses to be “gathered like chicks under the wings” of Jesus; then Bethany is the place where prophets recover and where clucking, caring community is to be found. Jesus, in taking the disciples as far as Bethany, points to where his incarnation will continue after the ascension. Yes, he does tell them to go and wait in Jerusalem for the gift from on high, but they are to go as the Bethany house community, caring for and supporting each other.
Pentecost may mark the birth of the empowered church, but the Ascension marks the gathering of that grieving, wounded and wondering group preparing, through pain, for inspiration.
Here in Bethany,where Lazarus walked out of a tomb that had been sealed for four days, these women and men are experiencing the very human realities of separation, loneliness and agst that we know from our own experience are the portals through which Spirit can blow.