The Ascension of Our Lord, traditionally observed 40 days after Jesus’ resurrection from the cross, is one of the biggest festivals of the Christian year; it’s up there (pun sort of intended) with Passion Week, Easter and Pentecost.
The celebration of Christ -- already risen from the grave and now rising to the heavens in order to assume his proper place at God’s Right Hand for the rest of eternity -- is such a big deal in some countries (including Columbia, Indonesia and Norway, among others), everyone gets the day off of work!
However, for many other Christians, especially in this country, the Thursday that’s 40 days after Easter is just another Thursday. There may be some nod to Jesus’ Ascension on the following Sunday, but for most pastors and church-y parishioners, their minds and imaginations by now are fixed on the festival of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, which necessarily calls for a lot of attention.
Poor Ascension! So often Pentecost’s shadow sister. Maybe it’s at least partly because it commemorates something that’s both spectacular to imagine, and also kind of goofy. I’m sure I’m not the first person to wish I’d been there to crack “Beam me up, Scotty!” or sing Up, Up and Away! as Jesus was lifted vertically upward and onward into the clouds, like something out of a surreal Terry Gilliam cartoon. Or The Wizard of Oz.
Then there are the (imho) rather strange customs that have come to be associated with this day: for example, one beaut called “beating the bounds.” As part of the Ascension feast in England and Wales, young lads from the local parish walk around the boundaries of the region over which the local church has authority. As they go, they swat with green branches of willow and birch (it is springtime, after all!) the stones that mark parish boundaries. Tra la!
This charming ritual serves several purposes: 1) it reinforce awareness of where parish boundaries really are; 2) it summons God’s blessing of good harvest for the faithful who live within said bounds; and, 3) (according to the Wikipedia article on "Feast of the Ascension of Jesus") it acknowledges that all progeny resulting from illicit liaisons within these lines are, bottom line, the responsibility of that particular local church.
Wikipedia adds that, at least traditionally, “(o)ne of the purposes served by beating the bounds was that of warning the young men of the parish that any sexual misbehaviour ought to take place with women who lived outside the parish.”
However, maybe we need not throw the baby (or the baby-maker, if she lives in the next hamlet) out with the bathwater. After all, there is much that’s good, even salvific, when we let our imaginations witness Jesus rising,…rising …and rising even more. And it’s not just so we remember Jesus can now to be found “up there.”
I believe the really good news of Ascension is that it reminds us, maybe even more profoundly than at Easter, that God’s ways are always about uplift. Jesus rose from the dead, but that’s not enough. Now Christ rises into the realm of endless love, creative possibility and new life.
Which is what God is always seeking to do with us.
Rise us out of our tombs of despair, malaise and trapped focus and keep on rising us up and up and up! We need never assume we are stuck in our problems, our confusion, our pain!!
And that’s why the Comic Lens suggests we cultivate a LOVE for Ascension Day and seek to celebrate it to the hilt! We know the best way to continue to let our spirits rise, rise and rise some more is through God’s gift of LAUGHTER!
Last Sunday I had the extreme privilege of leading a most risible “Ascension Sunday” feast at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in the small Mississippi river town of Lansing, Iowa. As this year’s “Midwest Laugh-Fest” in Ferryville, WI happened to fall on the same weekend as Ascension, and as I was asked to come to Our Savior’s to lead worship as part of the Laugh-Fest program (because both the Fest and the church are led by Rev. Laura Gentry, one of the nation’s preeminent teachers of laughter yoga), Sunday morning brought a fabulous intersection of purposes and exploration of the uplifting power and amazing grace of laughter.
As worship began, I asked for – and received – a team of congregational volunteers who agreed to play a few simple improv games throughout the service. This team was comprised of folks old and young from both the Our Savior's membership and from the laughter retreat. None had much previous experience, just a gallant and playful spirit.
The first improv created a symphony of “sinful” thoughts and emotions that one might bring into one’s prayer of confession. The congregation gave the players the iniquities they were to convey – some were quite serious, like anger and drunkenness, while some were a little goofier, like riding a bike naked down Main Street. Of course the congregation exploded in laughter at the thought of naked bike riding (especially because it was an old man with a bright smile who received that suggestion!). And it was surprisingly powerful and eye-opening to see a bunch of sins symbolically portrayed in over-the-top manner as a prelude for silent confession.
It was equally remarkable to see this group play out “symphonically” a series of thoughts and emotions that typically accompany forgiveness: peace, happiness, relief, dancing.
We also had great fun retelling the story of the Prodigal Son, acknowledging the Holy Spirit of Pentecost gives us the ability to tell stories of God’s deeds of power in language and words we’ve never before spoken. In Sunday’s version, as the improv team opened itself to what its “still small voices” were prompting to next be said, the story suddenly included a menagerie of animals traveling with the errant son on his journey to a land far away; caring for all these animals caused him to spend all his money (as pets so often do these days!) and necessitated his return home to ask Dad for help. This “new version” of the parable ended with the animals continuing to spread the news of God’s amazing grace and provision as only creatures of God’s “natural world” can. It actually was quite profound in addition to being quite kooky.
In true Protestant fashion (pun here totally intended), the climax of worship was the sermon, the interpretation of the Word. I was thrilled to be asked to share my monologue about how God used Florence Henderson’s birthday to lift me out of my tomb of loneliness and despair and continues to use it to propel my journey upward and onward.
I was even more thrilled that several of the women from the retreat enthusiastically modeled pant suits to illustrate my various points.
It was an experience of Spirit, adventure and love unlike any I’ve ever had in worship! (I don’t think I’d be fibbing to say I was not the only one for whom this was true!!)
The amazing uplift continued as the congregation sang it’s Hymn of Response: "I Love to Laugh” from Mary Poppins. Of course. Nothing like fizzing like snakes and twittering like birds with and for one another to bring all into the Kingdom of God, and enthusiastically…as children… just the way Jesus said it would, and needed, to work.
And then everything was topped off, or sent evermore upward, with the sacrament of Holy Communion. At Our Savior’s this Ascension Sunday, Jesus’ blood of forgiveness and reconciliation was offered in the form of sparkling Chablis, a non-alcoholic fizz-fest. What a wonderful and visceral reminder that the Kingdom is so powerfully and joyfully enabled by a presence that is much bubblier in every way than we normally acknowledge.
I think all of us who comprised the Our Savior's family last Sunday are continuing to feel the fizz! And, I'm guessing, that's what the Spirit will be compelling us to share in crazy and surprisingly effective ways and to new and surprisingly receptive communities once the fire of Pentecost lands upon us anew next Sunday.
And maybe that's the way it's always been intended to be! Thanks be to God here, up there, and everywhere!!