1 John 5:9-13; Luke 24:44-53
May 17, 2015
Ascension, miniature depicted in the Syriac Evangeliary of Rabbula (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, Italy)
Art commentary by Heidi J. Hornik and Mikeal C. Parsons
The image of the ascension in the illustrated Rabbula Syriac Gospels is one of the earliest depictions of the scene on parchment (586 CE) and sets the iconography for centuries to come. The figure of Christ is positioned in a mandorla (almond-shaped frame) with his right hand in a blessing gesture and his left holding a scroll. Flanked by angels, he is bearded and wears a golden nimbus. There is a clear distinction between this heavenly realm and those figures who remain on earth. Center stage in the earthly realm belongs to Mary, who stands directly beneath the mandorla of Christ. Her hands are open in exaltation and direct the viewer to the angels standing beside her. While Mary is not explicitly mentioned by Luke as being present at the ascension, she is introduced immediately thereafter (Acts 1:14). Her growing importance in the theological tradition had been signaled by her designation as Theotokos, “Mother of God,” at the Synod of Ephesus in 431, and she becomes more prominent in both literary and visual presentations.
[Many Protestant scholars affirm the title Theotokos for Mary but prefer to translate it “God Bearer.”]
He Was Received Up Into Heaven, by Hanna Varghese
Art commentary Richard A. Kauffman
Hanna Varghese is a Malaysian artist who often works in batik, as she does with this image of the ascension. Varghese was born to Christian parents, and she remembers her mother taking her to a different worship service every week: “My parents encouraged me to attend different churches so that my siblings and I would appreciate the liturgy and traditions of the Christian believers of different denominations. Christians are a minority in Malaysia so we continue to struggle for our identity in a Muslim society.” The ascension reminds Christians everywhere of the coming of God’s Spirit and that the reign of God is a universal one not bounded by nation states.
When we lived in Daybreak, the Roman Catholic community for mentally handicapped adults in Ontario, on Thursdays Candy and I handled some of the supper, evening and bedtime routines with core members to give house assistants a break. I helped Michael Arnett brush his teeth, get pajamas on, set out morning clothes and get to bed. I knelt alongside Michael as said his lengthy evening prayers for people all around the world but never for himself. In one community worship, we laid hands on one of the young woman assistant members to commission her to go to the community in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. As 30 or so folk gathered around her and prayed, Michael raised his hand in the air. I thought he was having his typical muscle coordination problem finding a place to connect with his hand. When all of the prayers subsided, Michael said loudly with his halting voice, “Go for God to Antigonish!” Michael’s apostolic blessing signaled the group that the prayers were finished and they returned to their seats. Michael could not have explained an apostolic blessing, but he knew how to give one, and the whole community recognized it was his spiritual gift that he regularly gave them.
The whole Bible is replete with blessings that are anything but polite well-wishing. A blessing invokes and confers on someone God’s goodness and favor with confidence and authority.
Passing the Peace is rooted in the holy kiss of the New Testament (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14) and was firmly established in the Church’s worship before the 4th century. It has been questioned in our day as wasting time and making guests uncomfortable. When it is only an exchange of greetings, I agree, but when it is a real blessing in which we confer Christ’s peace on each other, it can be powerful. Similarly, the benediction is not a signal the service has ended but sends us into the challenges of a new week with God’s empowering blessing. Even casual “bless you” can be a real blessing.
To the extent that we are aware of God’s presence in us, we are all authorized to confer God’s blessing on each other. Those of us with spiritual leadership have special opportunities to bless those we lead. As Jesus blessed his disciples at his Ascension, I affirm God’s blessing on you as I conclude my interim pastorate with you.
Though the New Testament alludes to Jesus’ Ascension a few times, only Luke reports the actual event in Acts 1:6-11 and Luke 24:44-53. In the Gospel account, Luke emphasizes three powerful blessings.
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.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And 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.” 50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
When Jesus says that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations” (v. 47), his echo of Genesis 12:2, that this was the fulfillment of God’s blessing on Abraham, so he could be a blessing, by which all the families of the earth would be blessed. On that basis, 1 John 5:13 says we may know that we have eternal life, not arrogance but as a blessing received from God.
By blessing his disciples at his Ascension, Jesus closed what was left open in Luke 1:22 when Zechariah could not pronounce the priestly blessing after the Angel Gabriel told him his wife would have a baby, John the Baptist who would prepared the way for the Messiah. Jesus likely gave the Aaronic benediction from Numbers 6:24-26, with which I will end worship today.
After Jesus blessed them, the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the Temple blessing God. They transformed the place where the religious leaders opposed Jesus into blessing God.
Jesus’ Ascension turns his farewell into a love story. Some have suggested that by naming Bethany, Luke hints that Jesus may have included his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus with the disciples when he ascended. Acts 1:14 also hints that his mother Mary may have been there as well. As Jesus blessed his disciples at his Ascension, I affirm God’s blessing on you as I conclude my interim pastorate with you.
The parallel is obvious between Jesus’ Ascension and sending the Holy Spirit to the disciples and Elijah being carried to heaven in 2 Kings 2:9-12 and his mantle signaling that Elisha had inherited Elijah’s spirit.
Jews of Jesus’ time were hazy about resurrection, which his disciples were working through when the risen Jesus met them. His Ascension was a clear demonstration that he did not descend to Sheol but to the abode of God, where he had promised they would join him.
In a Christian Century article (May 17, 2003), author Lawrence Wood wrote of his friend Carl whose wife Ruth died during Holy Week, and his daughter meant to console him by saying, “It’s especially hard to lose her this time of year.” To which Carl responded, “Are you kidding? This is the best time for my Ruthie. She’s with God now. That’s what this week is all about.”
As Jesus blessed his disciples at his Ascension, I affirm God’s blessing on you as I conclude my interim pastorate with you. So I give you these three blessings.
You are blessed to know that you have eternal life, not only affirmed in 1 John 5:13 but the purpose of John’s Gospel, so you may believe you have life in Jesus’ name.
You are blessed to know God is really among you as the Israelites did when Aaron blessed them in Leviticus 9:22-24. Paul wrote even outsiders would recognize God is really among us in 1 Corinthians 14:25.
You are blessed that God is sending you Jonathan Brink as your new pastor to lead you spiritual vigor, rigorous discipleship and fresh mission engagement.