From Easter morning until Ascension Thursday, Jesus is present and absent, enfleshed and distant, there and not there. He breaks bread and disappears. He shows up like a ghost, and then eats fish like everyone else. At the end of the story he blesses them, and then he withdraws.
It’s striking that the disciples’ response, rather than to be confused or bothered by this yes and no of resurrection, is to head back to Jerusalem and worship with great joy. I think I would have wanted more.
The preacher faces several challenges in these Ascension texts. How can we present Jesus’ departure from the earth as an occasion for not sorrow but celebration? How to translate the kingship and hierarchical language into imagery that speaks to a world no longer governed by kings and monarchs?
Feminist biblical scholars note a third challenge: How can we counter Luke-Acts' use of the Ascension to exert a degree of social control?
Hanna Varghese is a Malaysian artist who often works in batik, as she does with this image of the ascension. Varghese was born to Christian parents, and she remembers her mother taking her to a different worship service every week: “My parents encouraged me to attend different churches so that my siblings and I would appreciate the liturgy and traditions of the Christian believers of different denominations. Christians are a minority in Malaysia so we continue to struggle for our identity in a Muslim society.” The ascension reminds Christians everywhere of the coming of God’s Spirit and that the reign of God is a universal one not bounded by nation states.