Ascension-deficit disorder

A meditation on the Feast of the Ascension

by Ken Sehested
Feast of the Ascension 2021

The Feast of the Ascension is observed by some on the 40th day after Easter;
by others, on the seventh Sunday of Eastertide.

The Feast of the Ascension doesn’t get marquee billing, at least not in Protestant circles. Do a quick web image search and you can see why: Many depict a pasty white Jesus, in a chalk-colored robe, levitating above his surrounding disciples in a beam-me-up pose. Makes me think of the velvet paintings of Elvis.

Right: Kurdish village guards in Turkey underneath carpet paintings of Elvis & Jesus.

Which is why most yawn at hearing details of the church’s liturgical calendar, except for Christmas and Easter, which are boons to the economy.

We have so much historical recovery to do.

The context

“Got anything to eat?”
—Luke 24:41

I am writing with Feast of the Ascension textual suggestions in mind—Jesus advising his disciples to “stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). All this just shortly after Luke’s account of the Emmaen travelers who had come to sense Jesus’ presence “in the breaking of bread,” in the most mundane, yet life-giving, acts of human flourishing (24:28-35).

The pattern continues in the Gospels’ resurrection appearance stories. In Luke, Jesus appears from nowhere, greets the disciples by saying “Peace to you” (i.e., don’t be afraid), proves he was not a ghost by showing them his crucifixion wounds, and then asks, “Got anything to eat?” (24:36-43)

John’s Gospel accounts a similar food-featured story, of the disciples’ miraculous catch of fish, after toiling through the night with no luck, at Jesus’ suggestion yelled from the shore . . . where he was cooking breakfast (21:1-14).

Such stories, along with the some 2,000 biblical texts that emphasize God’s special attention to the poor, are indicators that food sufficiency signifies a larger livelihood and the corporeality of salvation.

Faith in the manner of Jesus is always bodified. Anything less is a signal that we suffer Ascension-deficit disorder.

The culprit

“I will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten.”
—Joel 2:25

With the disciples in the Acts 1 account, we still stand gazing to Heaven: with nostalgia for days past; with a longing for divine comfort shielded from earthly drama; with atoning desire emptied of fleshly content.

C.S. Lewis allegorized this deficiency in his classic primer on spirituality, Screwtape Letters, a book of satire written in the form of letters from Screwtape, a senior demon in the bureaucracy of Hell, to his nephew Wormwood who is a rookie tempter sent to subvert the faith of a particular individual identified as “the Patient.”

At one point Wormwood writes to his uncle Screwtape in frustration, saying he’s tried everything he knows to get “the Patient” to stop saying his daily prayers. Screwtape responds:

"It is, no doubt, impossible to prevent his praying for his mother, but we have means of rendering the prayers innocuous. Make sure that they are always very 'spiritual,' that he is always concerned with the state of her soul and never with her rheumatism."

One reason many of us were weaned on innocuous spirituality has to do with the English translation of Scripture.

For instance, we are instructed to "love not the things of this world" (1 John 2:15). But, on the other hand, "God so loved the world that he gave his only son" (John 3:16). On the one hand, the world is said to be passing away (1 John 2:17); on the other, "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19).

The Newer Testament epistles are filled with negative images of “the flesh,” perceived as corruptible, as warped desire, as licentious (Romans 13:14; 1 John 2:16; 2 Peter 2:18). Flesh is “hostile to God” (Romans 8:7), and we are warned against walking “according to the flesh” (Galatians 4:23, 29), or “setting the mind on the flesh” (Romans 8:5), “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:8), and “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50) contrasting it with “things of the Spirit” (Romans 8:4-13).

Let this be known: “The world” that is presently aligned against the Reign of God is a bootleg world.

Scripture repeatedly locates the work of salvation in the flesh. Ezekiel predicts the day when a new spirit will be put into human creatures, a “heart of flesh” displacing a “heart of stone” (36:26). Joel foresees the time when God will “pour out my spirit on all flesh” (2:28).

The Prophet’s claim (Isaiah 40:5)—echoed in Luke’s rendering (3:6)—is that “all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.” The first imperative in Jesus’ own model prayer is “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). And John the Revelator (11:15) asserts “the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of our God,” a sentiment sung fortissimo in Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”

The conclusion

“Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
—John 16:33

With Jesus, those aligned with Heaven’s insurrection also implore “let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 25:39) when sanction threatens. We prefer to reason: Since Jesus paid it all, what is there left for us than to agree? Slip conveniently, briefly, beneath heated baptismal waters? Pay our tithe and say grace at meals? Quote from our catechesis? And, most importantly for the zealous, convince others to do the same?

It is only by way of entering into Jesus’ Passion, and the disruption it entails, can we rediscover the Spirit’s Promise of presence—not in a space beyond tribulation but in its midst.

With the disciples, we remember that Jesus left, but we forget that this ascension would lead to a descension, of the Holy Spirit, and the its powerful animation of our little, defenseless flock on the Jesus Road into the far reaches of the globe with the profoundly unsettling news that a New Order was rising from the ashes of the old.

Throughout Scripture, the indwelling of the Spirit traffics in fleshly affairs.

The healing of our Ascension-deficit disorder requires the ekklesia to revisit the passion to which it is bound, living open-eyed in a world predicated on and subject to violation—and doing so without resort to in-kind response.

The scuttling of this disorder comes by way pathos, where we learn that God is more taken with the agony of the earth than with the ecstasy of heaven.

The Feast of the Ascension’s insistence is that God has not constructed a co-dependent relationship. The covenant is relational, not despotic. Faith entails participation, not consumption. Jesus is not our mascot, but the “pioneer of faith” (Hebrews 12:2) who bids us follow.

The threat he faced could very well be ours. But also the enduring power of joy, our buoyancy in the face of trouble.

The Feast of the Ascension is the seal of heaven’s safeguard: Not from the bootleg world, but in it, for it, on its behalf, for the blessing of Creation has not been annulled. Soon, Pentecostal power will be announced, the insurgence launched, pursuit of the New Heaven and the New Earth renewed day by day.

At the Feast of Ascension we receive our enlistment notice, and wait for the “clothing with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). It is a power "the world" does not understand and, finally, cannot resist.

Then, at Pentecost we mobilize, as the Resurrection moment animates the Resurrection movement.

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©ken sehested @