Ballast from Bethany-AscensionB

Luke 24:44-53

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.

Let’s see…
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.

Up, up and INSIDE!

Luke 24:44-53

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.

When European missionaries came to South Africa, they were faced with a theological conundrum.

The indigenous people, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Mpondo et al, believed that “God” who they named Nkulunkulu (The Biggest One), Camata, Modimo or Vulindhlela (The Way opener) lived in the ground. Caves and holes were sacred spaces which is why they were adorned with lithographs which in turn were animated by flickering fire in the caves. To this day the traditions of Africa see their beloved dead buried in the kraal, (corral). When an African is facing life’s challenges, a sacred ritual is to return to the kraal at one’s home and pour the froth of traditional beer into the earth before asking advice of the ancients who are buried there amongst their cattle.

The European missionaries were creed bound to teach that God lived in the sky, and also that there was a place called hell (which African cosmology had no reference, or need for)  deep in the earth. The way they did this “preaching” was to literally turn the psyche of Africans around from the God of the deep to the God of the sky, thus creating a deep tear in the soul of Africans who were already, by their very nature, profoundly theistic people.

What the missionaries did not have the insight to examine in their time was how they, as Westerners had come to believe in the God of the sky. Our post-modern deconstructed age has given us that insight and we understand how those early, pre-biblical thinkers could have concluded from their environment that the earth was a flat disk standing on pillars in the midst of water. This water threatened the earth and was kept back at the shore and in the sky by a dome that held back the chaos and destruction. This theme has been interestingly revisited by Stephen King in his latest novel “Under the Dome” but this time the chaos comes from within the dome and not from outside!

On a flat earth it was easy to point to where God lived. God was up beyond the dome and in fact was partly the dome itself holding back the chaos that seemed so close in that early world devoid of simple scientific rationale.

Coming with this middle-eastern cosmology to the events of Jesus’ death, resurrection and re-assimilation into God it was easy to speak of him having “ascended” back to God. Back beyond the dome.

In 2010 it is not so easy to speak of the notion of the ascension.

I remember one of my sons as a junior school learner, looking at a globe of the earth and asking who had decided that the North Pole should be on the top. “There is no up or down in space” was his insightful comment. Of course he was quite correct!

Now that we know what we know about third millennium cosmology, to speak of Jesus ascending is nonsensical. Where is up from a ball? Also given what we now know about the size of the Universe, ascension gets us into all sorts of problems such as how far, how high, which galaxy? Silly stuff.

As a concept the ascension is almost unworkable in our day. Thank God that there are only ten days between the Feast of Ascension and the Feast of Pentecost. Wherever Jesus goes dimensionally, it is only for ten days, and perhaps that is why Jesus, knowing the complexity of this phenomenon, blesses the proto-church disciples and tells them not to do anything until he gets back!

I am tickled however, by the African notion of the abode of God in the earth and not in the sky, so indulge me while I play with an idea that is every bit as speculative as the Ascension doctrine has been.

What if Africans are correct and Jesus came from God who lives in the earth? He would then have descended on this Feast day, back into the earth from which he came. I wonder how that simple change of orientation would have changed our world history?

What if the Africans had sent missionaries with this message to Europe and her Industrialised siblings instead of the other way around? Would the earth be groaning as she is now? Would we have raped and pillaged the abode of God as we have, all the while believing that God was “up there” blessing our “taming and subduing” of our island home in space”?

Of course, I have no way, and no mandate, to alter our doctrine nor our history, but I can’t help musing about the possibilities of a saviour who is earthed more deeply than the one I am duty bound to point to somewhere up there.

Perhaps after I have preached this Ascension Sunday I will go and have a beer in a kraal and wait for the Pentecostal breath to save our land.