Witnesses of Wonder

May 12, 2024
Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-9

“Ascension” by Michelle Burkholder

Tis a curious story we encounter in the text today as we begin to draw this long liturgical Easter season to a close – this account of the ascension of Jesus into the heavens. It is a story that none of the other gospels spend much, if any, energy on. Matthew and Mark allude to it lightly and John doesn’t speak of it at all. The writer of Luke, however, seems enamored with it to the point that it is written about twice – both at the end of the book of Luke which we just heard read – and then again at the beginning of the book of Acts.

Acts 1:1-9:

IN MY EARLIER ACCOUNT, THEOPHILUS, [this earlier account being referred to is the book of Luke] I DEALT with everything that Jesus had done and taught, from the beginning until the day he was taken up, after he had given instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After the Passion, Jesus appeared alive to the apostles—confirmed through many convincing proofs—over the course of forty days, and spoke to them about the reign of God. On one occasion, Jesus told them not to leave Jerusalem. “Wait, rather, for what God has promised, of which you have heard me speak,” Jesus said. “John baptized with water, but within a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” While meeting together they asked, “Has the time come, Rabbi? Are you going to restore sovereignty to Israel?” Jesus replied, “It’s not for you to know times or dates that Abba God has decided. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.” Having said this, Jesus was lifted up in a cloud before their eyes and taken from their sight.

These two accounts have much in common. They tell us that after the resurrection, Jesus appeared to and spent time with the disciples, reminding them of all he had taught them to that point, helping them open their minds and hearts to further understanding, blessing, preparing them – and assuring them – that the Holy Spirit would soon be with them, upon and within them, empowering them to continue the work of living God’s love into the world.

And then, in both accounts, Jesus is lifted up in a cloud before their eyes and taken from their sight. What is surprising to me is that this ascension of Jesus into the heavens doesn’t seem to surprise the disciples. Certainly they would have been familiar with the story of Elijah ascending to heaven in a whirlwind (if you were in church earlier this year you may vividly remember that story being told in children’s time with a leaf blower demonstration) so perhaps the ascension of Jesus isn’t so surprising or unexpected for them.

Perhaps ascension is something that they expect might happen to faithful leaders. I, for one, get excited when I see a rainbow arcing through the sky and into the clouds (which I got to see yesterday!) – and many people all over the country – around the world in fact, have been treated to an astonishing display of light and color dancing in the night sky as the impact of a giant solar storm splashes the aurora borealis across a broader range than it has in the past 20 years. Last month we experienced awe under varying degrees of a solar eclipse. We are astonished by witnessing unexpected visions in the skies above us. And yet, the accounts of Jesus’ ascension do not record the reaction of those present – other than to say they returned to Jerusalem full of joy and spent their time in prayer and praise as they awaited the coming of the Spirit.

For the lack of amazement recorded in the words of the text, artistic portrayals of this moment are often full of wonder and awe. A simple google search for ascension art reveals a wild assortment of portrayals of this moment. Many showcase colorful light swirls around a fabulous Jesus floating into the clouds as a gathering of disciples watches with their hands clasping their chests or extended upwards in praise. Sometimes the perspective on Jesus is from a distance so we can see him hovering.

Other pieces imagine Jesus right above the viewer as if we are looking up at the bottom of his feet as he stretches away and out of sight. While other pieces of art are more subtle – like the one on the back of your bulletin – showcasing simply feet – or sometimes just toes dangling out of some clouds in the sky at the top of an image as a way to portray the action of the story. This is probably my favorite way of encountering this text in art. Through tiny feet or toes.

I remember one of the first pieces I saw like this was in a tiny carving at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It is a diptych – a piece of art made of two panels – in this case 2 small ivory panels – each 8 inches high by 4 inches wide…so quite small! Created around 1375 – each of the panels has 3 sections within it portraying the arc of Jesus’ story including: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Betrayal of Judas, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and Pentecost. When the whole panel is only 4 inches wide, you can imagine how tiny those dangling feet are and to think of the artist carving such detail into such a small space amazed me…and also brought me humor and joy – you have to know what you are looking at/for to understand what is there – and when you see those tiny feet dangling out of clouds at the top of the frame – it’s almost like you have encountered a delightful inside joke.

It warmed my heart so much that, years later, when I made a collection of 40 small cutouts that portrayed instances of the number 40 in scripture for my 40th birthday, I included my own version of those dangling feet for it was 40 days after the resurrection that Jesus ascended – and that’s the image there on the back of the bulletin.

As I was looking at art of the Ascension this week, I came across a piece that had another surprising detail in it. The piece is a woodcut by Albrecht Durer entitled: The Ascension, from “The Little (or Small) Passion”. The Small Passion is a series of 37 3 inch by 5 inch prints from 1511 that explore the passion story. A woodcut means that the artist carved the image into a block of wood and then applied ink to that carving and printed it on paper. At the top of this piece, is the traditional cloud with feet dangling out of it. At the bottom of the page are Jesus’ followers watching the ascension in reverence and wonder. And the curious detail in Durer’s piece is right in the middle. In between the disciples on the ground, and Jesus’ feet dangling above is a round mound of earth representing the Mount of Olives from which Jesus ascended and on the top of that mound of earth are the outlines and indentations of residual footprints. These little footprints are endearing. Durer’s piece celebrates the wonder and mystery of the ascension while also grounding the viewer in the impact of Jesus’ presence on earth.

What are we to make of this story? Some may take comfort in the reminder that the Jesus who ascended to heaven on a cloud is said to be returning to earth in the same manner at some point. I find that thought as mysterious as the original ascension – or I guess I could say my thoughts and feelings around that are clouded…and so I hold it lightly, comfortable to not dwell on it or try to make sense of it.

Instead, as I sat with the art and the words this week, I kept returning to one phrase again and again: you are witnesses to all these things. Jesus, through the  presence of his life, death, and resurrection, has modeled how to live God’s love into the world and invites his followers to follow that example – putting what they have witnessed into practice in their own lives as they bear witness to the love of God through their living.

We today are also Jesus followers and that invitation to be witnesses continues to extend to us in our living. If you turn again to the image on the back of the bulletin you may notice that something is missing in my piece. There are no people other than Jesus in it. No witnesses are pictured within the frame. In this depiction, each viewer takes on the role of witness. We, gathered here and looking at this together, each carry our own experiences of encounters with and witness of the love of God in the world.

Just below the image on the back of the bulletin you will encounter a reminder that the theme for our church year is: Grow Boldly. It came out of a gathering of the Church Council and Pastorate at the beginning of the church year (which runs September to August) to attend to the life of the congregation, consider what we have been up to and where we want to focus in the year ahead. The theme Grow Boldly emerged for this year and was, in part, rooted in a deep desire to spend time thinking together about what our growth is rooted in and to be more transparent or explicit about what we believe and practice and why we do what we do the way we do it.

In short, part of the theme of Growing Boldly is about bearing witness to ourselves as individuals and to our collective church body. In this story of the ascension I discovered three questions emerging for us to consider as we grow boldly. I am going to offer them to you now along with an invitation to a few moments of reflection around them right now – and to carry them with you into the week ahead.

Here we go:

  1. Consider the residual footprints of Jesus on the mound of earth. What is something you hold close, or something you have learned or carry with you from the life and teachings of Jesus?
  2. Consider the feet dangling from the bottom of a cloud. What is something that is mysterious to you about your faith journey? Something that fills you with awe or wonder about being a witness to God’s love in the world?
  3. Consider the followers of Jesus praying and praising God in the temple, waiting for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (which we will celebrate next week on Pentecost). What is something you are anticipating or hoping for? What is something that feels very present in your life – it might be something in need of transformation, or perhaps a space of celebration.

As you carry these with you into the week ahead and reflect on these questions, consider sharing your discoveries with someone else as part of practicing being a witness as you continue to Grow Boldly.

In this mysterious ascension story, we find an invitation to hold close what we have learned and witnessed in Jesus’ life and teachings while turning our attention towards the world as we make space for and embrace the presence of the Spirit around and within us empowering us to be Christ’s hands and feet living God’s love into the world.