Ascension Day Sermon 2018
If you look on the front of your service bulletin this evening you will see the seal of The Church of the Ascension. Do not be ashamed if your first response is to laugh at it. Two nail-scarred feet flying up into a cloud. I think you have to admit that there is a certain cartoon-like quality here that just seems a bit absurd, and I know that the first time I saw it I laughed and thought to myself: “really?” “Is that the best they could do to depict the Ascension of our Lord?”
Of course, what I have discovered through time and a little research, is that we are not alone in having a somewhat whimsical representation of the Ascension attached to our church.
Some of you may know that our statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was actually brought back from the shrine in Walsingham, England by a group of Ascension parishioners in 2015. While we were exploring the shrine church, some of us naturally took the time to visit its chapel of the Ascension. Well if you go into the Chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham, what most stands out (and I know I have a picture of this somewhere) is a couple of feet dangling down from the ceiling over the altar. At first glance it looks kind of absurd, and quite funny; like Jesus took off into the sky and got stuck in the ceiling. My first inclination was to laugh and think “I’m not sure that’s what Paul meant when he said “he hath put all things under his feet.” The shrine church in Walsingham isn’t terribly old, but it was built with an eye to ancient tradition, and there is a very old tradition of depicting the Ascension by showing Jesus’s feet going into a cloud. So we are not alone; in fact, we are in good company.
From medieval manuscripts, to the chapel in Walsingham, to our seal, to even Salvador Dali, artists throughout the ages have often decided that the best way to depict this mystery in the life of Jesus, his ascension into heaven, is by focusing on his feet. His head and body have passed into the clouds; entered into the realm of the unknown, and what we are left with is the image of his feet: nail-scarred to remind us that this is a body that has overcome the pains of death; very human, real flesh, and yet entering into a mystery that we can neither see nor fully comprehend.
The more that I reflect upon the Ascension, the more I realize that maybe the artists that first depicted it by showing only Jesus’s feet were onto something, because the truth is, we can’t see what Jesus sees now. Our scriptures give us some images of heaven, but the realm that our lord’s body has entered into…we can’t fully know. We can’t get our heads into that cloud. We can’t see it. No, I don’t think that Jesus’s body is floating around on a cloud somewhere, but I do believe that he has taken our human flesh, redeemed it, and united it with God. He has passed through the veil that we long to pass through. He is living out our hope; he is preparing the way for us to live fully in the kingdom of God with him.
If Jesus only came to fix our world, then the Ascension would make no sense, but if he didn’t care intimately about the world we live in, then his incarnation would make no sense. We have both. In Jesus, God takes on our human flesh, living, breathing, and eating and teaching in this world, but in the end he unites us with a reality that is beyond this world. Yes, heaven is our hope; we long to be with Christ wherever he is, that is after all a promise that he made us, but how we live that hope in this world matters. Jesus gave us promises, but he also gave us commandments. We can’t just take one and not the other.
So I think that showing Jesus’s feet to depict the Ascension might just be a brilliant way of teaching us not just about our destiny of being raised up with Christ on the last day, but also how we are supposed to live until that day comes: always holding on and looking to the feet of Jesus. Following in his footsteps.
Let’s think about the scriptures for a minute, and we will recall that feet actually played a pretty important role in Jesus’s ministry and in the ministry of those who followed him and I’m not just talking about the fact that they walked everywhere, although that in itself is significant.
What did John the Baptist say before Jesus was baptized? “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” In other words, I am not worthy to even touch his feet.
And what about Martha and Mary of Bethany? You may recall Martha complaining to our lord that her sister Mary wasn’t helping with dinner because she was sitting at his feet, which he went on to say was the better choice. Mary would throw herself at Jesus’s feet again after her brother Lazarus died. She would cling to Jesus’s feet once more as she anointed them before his own death.
At his last supper, our Lord washed his disciples feet and he said to them:
“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me teacher and Lord- and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”
Feet aren’t always pretty things, but if we are to follow the example of our Lord then we can’t be afraid of them. We must remember our Lord’s words: “All those who humble themselves will be exalted.” If we hope to share in his exaltation, then we must also share in his humility. We must be prepared to be perpetually at our Lord’s feet like Mary of Bethany: listening to his instruction, imploring his mercy, and expressing our love and devotion.
There is another church that famously depicts our Lord’s feet: on the Mount of Olives, near Bethany at a site that is traditionally claimed as the actual site of our Lord’s Ascension. There has been a chapel there since at least the time of Constantine’s mother, Queen Helena. There preserved in the stone in the center of the little chapel is what is supposed to be Jesus’s right footprint, left upon the stone as he ascended into heaven. Now I’m not here to claim that this impression in the stone is the authentic footprint of Jesus, but I kinda hope it is. It’s absurd and funny, just like our own seal, and just like the feet of Jesus in the chapel in Walsingham. But it would be the perfect artifact of the Ascension, maybe a perfect symbol of our faith, because it doesn’t tell us a whole lot about where Jesus is going; but it is a clear mark of where he has been.
And isn’t that just like our God?