Reframing Our Attention: Preaching Ascension in the Midst of Violent Trauma
Ascension of Jesus Icon, Lattakia (1667)
Today is the Feast of the Ascension in the Christian Calendar. So, the texts in the Revised Common Lectionary this week will invite preachers to preach on the Ascension of Jesus, either from Acts 1 and/or Luke 24. However, with everything that has happened in the past 10 days—the shootings in Buffalo, NY, Laguna Beach, CA, and Uvalde, TX (among others left unreported or under-reported)—it might feel a bit odd or out of place to preach on the Ascension of Jesus.
After all, we usually think about the Ascension of Jesus as this glory-filled moment of Christ’s ultimate resurrected divinity. We are invited to sing hymns that declare “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name!” or remind us that “Jesus shall reign where’er the Sun does its successive journeys run.” The ascension of Christ is one of those moments in Scripture where we are invited to stand in awe of Jesus’ power and glory as the great high priest and redeeming Son of God “whose name is above all names.”
However, given the events of this week, particularly the murder of 19 children and 2 educators at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, TX, it may be especially hard to declare God’s glory and the power of Christ’s reign of peace. After all, in spite of the reign of the resurrected and ascended Christ, it is clear that evil is still at work in the world. Though we proclaim the redeeming work of God through Christ, the world seems more fallen and broken than ever. These texts, at first glance, leave little space for our hurting and broken existence. On their surface, these ascension texts leave little room for the lament that is so needed in these heart-wrenching days.
However, I would suggest that, upon deeper consideration, the Ascension of Jesus and these texts from Luke and Acts might actually meet us exactly where we are in these days filled with trauma, pain, grief, and violence.
First, these ascension texts invite us to take seriously and even lament the apparent absence or, perhaps better, sense of distance of Christ. While in the Christian calendar we frame the ascension as this moment of glory and celebration of the reign of Christ, this moment in our faith story is also one of loss. The disciples had already lost their beloved teacher and friend once to death on a cross. And they had only had him back in resurrected form for 40 days. While this loss was far less gruesome than crucifixion, it was still a loss. No longer would Jesus walk and talk with them; no more could they turn and ask the incarnate Christ questions or receive his parables. Though he “opened [the disciples’] minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45), promised that they would be “clothed with power from on high” (John 24:48), and promised they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5), these insights and promises did not erase the fact their resurrected Savior was leaving and that the relationship between the disciples and Jesus would change forever.
In these days of violent loss, when evil seems to be winning and hate and hurt seem to call out at every turn, we might wonder about the nearness of Christ. We might begin to question whether God is, at best, just watching on the sidelines. Or, at worst, we might fear that God has abandoned us altogether. These ascension texts may allow preachers and communities to lament the apparent distance of God, the ways Christ may seem far away in these moments. We can grieve alongside the disciples that Jesus now feels at a distance. And even with all the lessons, Bible studies, and hermeneutical lenses we employ, even with the gifts we have been granted by God to serve the world, even though we recite trust in the power of the Holy Spirit still at work and moving, these realities do not erase the pain we feel and the ways we cannot perceive God close or at work in these moments.
Second, these Ascension texts invite us, even in our grief and sense of abandonment, to look around and perceive the ways we are called to participate in the Kindom work amid the brokenness of this world. One of my favorite moments in the Ascension story as told in Acts is the moment when the disciples are looking to the sky, enraptured by their Lord’s heavenward departure. While they are still looking up, they are quickly brought back to the present moment by two men in white robes who asked them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking toward heaven?” The answer should be obvious, right? I mean, it’s not every day you see your Teacher and Lord lifted up on a cloud! But the question is deeper than that. It is an invitation for these disciples to not get so caught in the glory of God they miss the work they have been blessed, gifted, and commissioned to do in the world. After all, according to Acts 1, Jesus’ final words to them were one of promise of the Holy Spirit and commissioning to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8b). There is work left to do. Indeed, the departure of Jesus is the inauguration of a new moment, or, perhaps, a new movement. With the Savior reigning from on high, it is now the work of Jesus’ disciples to be the embodied witnesses of Christ in the world.
This invitation is not only for the disciples who had front row seats to Jesus’ heavenly ascension. It is an invitation for all of us. The Ascension of Christ invites each of us to claim our place in the Kindom work of God on earth. Though our tendency, like the disciples, may be to look up for God’s glory or work or promise or reassurance in these trauma-filled and troubling times, these texts invite us to not simply look up, but look around. These texts invite us to take seriously one another’s pain. These texts encourage us to be present to one another as we take seriously the brokenness of the world. These texts remind us that while the consummation of creation is ultimately God’s, we can be agents of God’s work of peace and justice.
So, as we encounter these texts this week, I hope preachers will not feel compelled to preach either the hurt and hate encountered this week or the Ascension texts. Instead may you find in these texts space for honest reflection and lament and invitation for faithful response.