On Sunday mornings, a great division takes place among American people as some go to church and most stay home. Those who stay home are not taking a week off; church is simply not part of their lives. As far as they are concerned, houses of worship are little more than pretty antiques, fussed over by wishful thinkers who do not know when to admit they are wrong and go home. It is one of the most peculiar things twentieth-century human beings can do—to come together week after week with no intention of being useful or productive, but only of facing an ornate wall to declare things they cannot prove about a God they cannot see.
Our word for it is worship, and it is hard to justify in this day and age; but those of us who do it over and over again begin to count on it. This is how we learn where we fit. This is how we locate ourselves between the past and the future, between our hopes and our fears, between the earth and the stars. This is how we learn who we are and what we are supposed to be doing: by coming together to sing and to pray, to be silent and to be still, by peering into the darkness together and telling each other what we see when we do.
We may baffle our unbelieving friends and neighbors, but it cannot be helped. Half the time we baffle ourselves, proclaiming good news when the news is so bad, trusting the light when the sky is so dark, continuing to wait on the Savior in our midst when all the evidence suggests that he packed up and left a long, long time ago.
T o be theologically correct, we have been waiting on the Savior ever since the first Ascension Day, when Jesus led his disciples to a mount called Olivet just outside of Jerusalem, spoke to them for the last time, and disappeared inside a cloud for good. You can read in Acts 1:6-11 how one moment he was there with them and the next moment he was gone, his well-known hand raised in final blessing, his face grown bright and indistinct, his familiar shape vanishing into the fog like the end of a dream too good to be true—all of it slipping out of their reach until he was no longer there for them, no longer present but past, a memory that would haunt them to the end of their days.
Where he went was to heaven—which may not be up, exactly, as much as it is beyond—and what he went there to do was to finish what he had begun with us. It was not enough that through him God was born into the body of the world; that was just his Christmas gift to us. His ascension gift was that through him the body of the world was borne back to God. By presenting his own ruined, risen body to be seated at the right hand of God, Jesus imported flesh and blood into those holy precincts for the first time. He paved the way for us, so that when we arrive there later everyone will not be quite so shocked by us. He restored the goodness of creation, and ours in particular. By ascending bodily into heaven, he showed us that flesh and blood are good, not bad; that they are good enough for Jesus, good enough for heaven, good enough for God. By putting them on and keeping them on, Jesus has not only brought God to us; he has also brought us to God.
I tried all of that out on a friend last week. "Isn't that incredible?" I said. "Doesn't that make the Ascension come alive for you?"
"Interesting," he said, "but not compelling."
What he meant, I think, is that it is still an abstract idea—an explanation that has very little to do with our day-to-day experience. Almost everything else that happened to Jesus makes sense in terms of my own life. He was born to a human mother; so was I. He ate and drank and slept at night; so do I. He loved people and got angry with people and forgave people; so have I. He wept; me too. He died; I will die too. He rose from the dead; I even know something about that. I have had some Easterlike mornings of my own—joy found in the midst of sorrow, life in the midst of death.
But ascending into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God? That is where Jesus and I part company. That is where he leaves me in the dust. My only experience of the Ascension is from the ground, my neck cranked back as far as it will go, my mouth wide open, my face shielded from the sun by the cloud that is bearing my Lord away.
L uke ends his gospel by telling us that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy. But you have to remember that it had just happened for them, that they had just been with him, and the memory was fresh. They were still running on adrenaline; you can see it in the pictures. Almost every church with stained-glass windows has an ascension window tucked away somewhere. In it, Christ generally hovers in the air, his hands upraised in blessing, while the disciples look up at him with something between awe and delight. But he is there with them—he is in the window—and if they went away joyful, then I cannot help thinking that it was because they thought he would be back in a day or two, next week at the latest.
Two thousand years later, we tend to see the whole thing a little differently. We need a new window to describe our own situation: a window with just us in it—no angels, no Jesus, no heavenly light—just us, still waiting, still watching the sky, our faces turned up like empty cups that only one presence can fill. But he is not present anymore, not the way he used to be.
Ascension Day is the day the present Lord became absent, which may be why it is the most forgotten feast day of the church year. Who wants to celebrate being left behind? Who wants to mark the day that Jesus went out of this world, never to be seen again? Hungry as we are for the presence of God, the one thing we do not need is a day to remind us of God's absence.
Or is that really the one reason, underneath all the other reasons, we are here? Because we have sensed God's absence—in our hollow nights, our pounding hearts, our unanswered prayers—and because those things have not discouraged us from coming here but have in fact brought us here, to seek the presence we have been missing?
You cannot miss what you have
never known, which makes our
sense of absence—and especially
our sense of God's absence—the very
best proof that we knew God once,
and that we may know God again.
Sometimes I think absence is underrated. It is not nothing, after all. It is something: a heightened awareness, a sharpened appetite, a finer perception. When someone important to me is absent from me, it becomes clearer than ever what that person means to me. Details that got lost in our togetherness are recalled in our apartness, and their sudden clarity has the power to pry my heart right open. I see the virtues I have overlooked, the opportunities I have missed. The quirks that drove me crazy at close range become endearing at a distance. From that enlarged perspective, I can see that they are the very things that make my someone someone and not just anyone.
There is something else that happens during an absence. If the relationship is strong and true, the absent one has a way of becoming present—if not in body, then in mind and spirit.
My husband, Edward, is devoted to hawks and especially to the golden eagles that are coming back to our part of Georgia. Driving down the highway with him can become a test of nerve as he cranes over the steering wheel to peer at the wing feathers of a particularly large bird. Is it an eagle? Or just a turkey vulture? He has to know, even if it means weaving down the road for a while, or running off it from time to time.
"Keep your eyes on the road!" I yell at him. "Who cares what it is? I'll buy you a bird book; I'll buy you a bird. Just watch where you're going." Then a couple of summers ago we spent two months apart and I thought I would get a break from hawks, but instead I began to see them everywhere—looping through the air, spiraling in rising thermals, hunkered down in the tops of trees. Seeing them, really seeing them for the first time in my life, I understood that I was not seeing them with my own eyes but with Edward's eyes. He was not there, so I was seeing them for him. He was absent—or was he? He was present in me.
One thing is for sure: there is no sense of absence where there has been no sense of presence. What makes absence hurt, what makes it ache, is the memory of what used to be there but is no longer. Absence is the arm flung across the bed in the middle of the night, the empty space where a beloved sleeper once lay. Absence is the child's room now empty and hung with silence and dust. Absence is the overgrown lot where the old house once stood, the house in which people laughed and thought their happiness would last forever.
You cannot miss what you have never known, which makes our sense of absence—and especially our sense of God's absence—the very best proof that we knew God once, and that we may know God again. There is loss in absence, but there is also hope, because what happened once can happen again, and only an empty cup can be filled. It is only when we pull that cup out of hiding, when we own up to the emptiness, the absence, the longing inside—it is only then that things can begin to change.
It is our sense of God's absence, after all, that brings us to church in search of God's presence. Like a band of forlorn disciples, we return to this hillside again and again. It is the place we lost track of him; it is the last place we saw him, so of course it is the first place anybody thinks to look for him to come again. We have been coming here a long time now, but even in his absence it is a good place to remember him—to recall best moments and argue about the details, to swap all the old stories until they begin to revive again, the life flowing back into them like feeling into a numb limb. It hurts at first, but then it is fine, and the joy of remembering makes the pain seem a small price to pay.
"Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?" That is what the two men in white robes said to the disciples on the mount called Olivet just outside of Jerusalem. Luke calls them men in white robes, anyway, so as not to scare anyone, but you can bet your last nickel that they were angels—angels sent to remind God's friends that if they wanted to see him again, it was no use looking up. Better they should look around instead, at each other, at the world, at the ordinary people in their ordinary lives, because that was where they were most likely to find him—not the way they used to know him, but the new way, not in his own body but in their bodies, the risen, the ascended Lord who was no longer anywhere on earth so that he could be everywhere instead.
N o one standing around watching them that day could have guessed what an astounding thing happened when they all stopped looking into the sky and looked at each other instead. On the surface, it was not a great moment: 11 abandoned disciples with nothing to show for all their following. But in the days and years to come it would become very apparent what had happened to them. With nothing but a promise and a prayer, those 11 people consented to become the church, and nothing was ever the same again, beginning with them.
The followers became leaders, the listeners became preachers, the converts became missionaries, the healed became healers. The disciples became apostles, witnesses of the risen Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit, and nothing was ever the same again.
That probably was not the way they would have planned it. If they had had it their way, they would probably have tied Jesus up so that he could not have gotten away from them, so that they would have known where to find him and rely on him forever. Only that is not how it happened. He went away—he was taken away—and they stood looking up toward heaven. Then they stopped looking up toward heaven, looked at each other instead, and got on with the business of being the church.
And once they did that, surprising things began to happen. They began to say things that sounded like him, and they began to do things they had never seen anyone but him do before. They became brave and capable and wise.
Whenever two or three of them got together it was always as if there were someone else in the room with them whom they could not see—the strong, abiding presence of the absent one, as available to them as bread and wine, as familiar to them as each other's faces. It was almost as if he had not ascended but exploded, so that all the holiness that was once concentrated in him alone flew everywhere, flew far and wide, so that the seeds of heaven were sown in all the fields of the earth.
We go to church to worship, to acknowledge the Lord's absence and to seek the Lord's presence, to sing and to pray, to be silent and to be still, to hold out the empty cups of our hands and to be filled with bread, with wine, with the abiding presence of the absent Lord until he comes again. Do you miss him sometimes? Do you long for assurance that you have not been left behind? Then why do you stand looking up toward heaven? Look around you, look around.
Barbara Brown Taylor, author of God in Pain (Abingdon), teaches at Piedmont College, Demorest, Georgia.
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