After the preparation and pageantry of Easter Sunday, I would suspect that many Christian churches have experienced a liturgical slump back into their own mundane, week-to-week worship routine. Easter is the time of year that requires an unusual amount of collaboration, communication and cooperation beyond what some may be accustomed. Choir directors, clergy, singers, dancers, dramatists, musicians and congregations are sometimes worn and ready to get back to business as usual. Although celebrated during the fourth (sometimes third) calendar month of the year, Easter Sunday is v
iewed by many as the the liturgical climax of the Christian year (which started in late November). It doesn't get any more exciting and intense as Easter. Easter is that time of year when the proverbial, “Eeeeeeeearly, one Sunday mo’nin, He got up!” takes on its most authentic context. Getting that body up out of that grave is what Easter Sunday morning is all about.
However, I worry about how some clergy and worship leaders theologically mis-manage the resurrected body of Jesus Christ after Easter Sunday. What do we do we Jesus after Easter Sunday? After the risen Christ encounters two strangers on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24) and later appears among a gathered body of disciples in disbelief, the Scriptures tell us he is “taken up into heavens” (Luke 24:51). Most of us know this moment as the
. What does the church – the Black Church specifically – do with the resurrected flesh of Jesus Christ in our theological reflection of the ascension? What happens to the nail-scared hands and feet he begged them to touch right before being carried way into heavens? Where is the skin, muscle tissue, “holey” flesh, the tomb-tainted remains of the One who disappeared into the heavens? In what direction did he go? Did he go UP? Did he go DOWN? Did he just vanish? WHERE IS JESUS? When He ascended, in what form did he ascend? Did he instantly become a spirit or supernatural being upon his exit? Did his flesh/skin fall off like a bath robe before being carried away into the heavens? If so, where is that skin? WHERE IS JESUS? Could it be that he held on to his resurrected flesh and still remains in it, UP in heaven. . . or wherever he may be? WHERE IS JESUS? We’ve been taught that he sits high and looks low. Our creeds affirm that he sits on the right hand of God, the Father, the Almighty. But what does he look like sitting there? What is he wearing? In what form does He reign? Did he then become the “ghost” he tried to convince the disciples he wasn’t or is he proudly reigning as a glorified-flesh-bound human being? WHERE IS JESUS AND WHAT DOES HE LOOK LIKE WHEREVER HE IS?
Laurence Hull Stookey, in his book CALENDAR: CHRIST TIME FOR THE CHURCH (a critical resource that helped shape my theology of worship), asserts that it is the ascension that transforms Christ’s resuscitation into resurrection. Without the ascension, Stookey says, one could assume that Christ is still walking around in the earth aimlessly in flesh. We need the ascension to underscore the unique, divine handiwork of God. Why is the mystery of the ascension omitted in so many people’s understanding of the Easter narrative and Pentecost? We can’t benefit from the coming of the Holy Spirit without the ascension. It is the necessary bridge that leads to the priestly reign of Christ and the birth of the church.
Forty days after his resurrection, Christ’s visible ministry as teacher, healer, political revolutionary and social agent is completed and confirmed in the ascension. This year, ascension day falls on a Thursday (May 5). Some churches will celebrate the ascension on the Sunday prior and some will celebrate the Sunday following. Regardless of timing, we can’t afford to make the ascension just another fancy bulletin heading and not sing, teach, and preach about this mystery. In a day when black flesh is under siege, we desperately need the ascension functioning as an active, on-going part of our God-talk. What is the good news in the ascension? How might the ascension inform or be in conversation with #BlackLivesMatter? Or, is the contemplation on the ascension an attempt at being too deep or too high church? Is this too much (extra) work? Besides, we are still recovering from the exhaustion of Easter Sunday. Who cares? Why does it matter?
The ascension, at the same time, marks the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the beginning of his reign as eternal intercessor and mediator. This is a critical link to the foundations of Pentecost and the birth of the church. When the theology of the ascension is omitted, or not engaged intentionally, a biblical and theological gap is created. Since many protestant churches view Easter as a day and not a season of fifty days, we squander the opportunity to delve into the exploration of our own understanding of death and life after death. To me, most church people have a warped theology of death and dying because we spend our lives keeping the flesh at war with the spirit. Death, however, brings us into a face-to-face confrontation with the body and the spirit. We need more sermons, more songs, more Christian education around the implications of the ascension to ground us in the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ and ourselves. I am not advocating for a need to come up with an exact formula that explains scientifically and physiologically how the ascension happened. I just want us to talk about the fact that it happened.
Too often do churches rush to the dance floor of Pentecost, yearning for the spiritual catharsis and charismatic ethos it offers, without fully grasping the notion that glorified-flesh-on-earth exchanged places with spirit-in-heaven. If the Spirit still remained spirit on earth, does the flesh of Jesus remained intact wherever Jesus is? Pentecost gives the church a chance to revel in the supernatural and physical (shouting, speaking in tongues, etc.) presence of God. I argue that without a healthy theological discourse on the ascension and its implications, our celebration of Pentecost runs the risk of becoming shallow and performative. We have to wallow in the questions: WHERE IS THE VISIBLE, INCARNATED JESUS? WHAT DOES HE LOOK LIKE WHEREVER HE IS? IF HE WAS TRANSFORMED INTO A SPIRIT-BEING AFTER HIS ASCENSION, WHERE IS HIS FLESH?
Does your church or pastor articulate a clear theological understanding of the ascension? If so, how is it expressed within the context of corporate worship? If you are a pastor, clergy, or ruling elder, will you preach an ascension-centered sermon the first or second Sunday in May? How will you make the mystery of the ascension relevant? Our brothers and sisters in the high church traditions tend to do a better job at this work than many of us in mainline denominations.
So, tell me: WHERE IS JESUS?