A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Sunday after Ascension), Year A
Prepared for Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
Between my days as a college professor and my evenings as a seminary student, I spend a lot of time with words. Having just brought both academic years to a close, I can honestly say that I have read thousands of words my students have submitted in terms papers, dissertations, and thesis proposals. And, frankly, I think I’ve put almost that many words on paper myself in my own seminary coursework. Maybe it should come as no surprise that the divine inspiration that found me this week hasn’t been through words but instead, through art.
Here at Grace and Holy Trinity, images of the Ascension have been constant companions in my journey of getting to know this parish. Every time we face the altar, we are drawn into worship by the stained glass image of the ascended Christ. And for me, my usual seat as lay assistant for the 8:45 service…and for choir at the 11 a.m. is right there…where my front-facing gaze naturally focuses on the mural of the Ascension.
These welcoming and now familiar images have been with me across the church year, as I’ve been learning the liturgy and music and the cadence of parish life. The images we have here in the midst of our worship together are glorious works of art depicting Jesus lifted up in the clouds, being met by an awaiting triumphant angelic chorus, his disciples banding together, looking skyward with wonder and amazement. These images were chosen for this space with intention by those who pre-date our worship here today by nearly a century. Each Sunday we, like the disciples, can look with awe and wonder at Christ who is here with us, but also of another realm, in the very presence of and being with God.
After pondering our own parish art, I began to wonder about how these artistic renderings of Christ’s ascension had evolved over the history of our Christian faith. So, I did a quick search, browsing around for examples of religious art and depictions of Christ’s Ascension across the ages. When my gallery of images took me to medieval and renaissance art; much to my surprise (and chagrin), I found the most focus on Jesus’ feet.
Now, in all honesty, I’m not a big fan of feet. So, I thought maybe these particular foot-focused pieces of art were just a random few that happened to jump out at me.
But, no…as I researched this artistic phenomenon a bit more, it seems that particularly in the middle ages, the way in which Christ’s Ascension was portrayed largely focused on the viewpoint of his disciples, looking upward where all that was remaining on the canvas…or the fresco…or the ceiling ornamental were Jesus’ feet, being lifted off this earth, and into the clouds.
This is a very literal, physical portrayal of an event which today might seem to us quite ephemeral, or perhaps even a beautiful, artistic metaphor. Admittedly, my intellectual curiosity had been piqued, so I found myself being drawn into these renderings of feet and thinking about them as I reflected on what I’ve come to know about Church History and theology over the centuries.
I immediately thought of another practice of medieval piety, referred to in my studies of liturgy and sacramental theology as “ocular communion” where the gathered faithful would sometimes only glance at the consecrated elements during key moments of the Eucharistic Prayer, believing themselves unworthy of anything but the quickest, passing glance at the real presence of Christ. This was their communion; they didn’t partake in the distribution of bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood, except with their eyes. The intensity of the real seemed too much for their vulnerable, ordinary humanity to ingest. Art and image have the ability to convey meaning beyond words. Another example, the illuminations of medieval manuscripts…which, by the way, are also filled with images of the feet of the ascended Christ….conveyed a message even to those who had no access to the words of Holy Scripture. Sacred mystery was conveyed not by intellectual discourse and theological study but also by the very glimpse of that which conveyed the sacramental: the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.
It’s a challenge for us in our modern lives to draw into ourselves their depth of reverence for sacred mystery. What strikes me about the ascension, in all of these works of art and images that my eyes have feasted on this week, is that Jesus is never gone. Our eyes retain a glimpse of the vision of Christ…even if only his feet…as we recognize that our own feet are planted firmly on the ground of this earth. In art, across the centuries, we are able to catch a glimpse of sacramental presence, even in a story of physical absence.
This realization brings me back around to the Gospel lesson, from the 17th chapter of John.
Today we hear the final portion of Jesus’ farewell discourse with his disciples which John places immediately after the last supper, and before the night on which Jesus was betrayed.
If we draw into the context of that unfolding story, feet also play a prominent role. At the last supper, it is Jesus who wraps a towel around his waist, who kneels down, and who lovingly washes his disciples feet. In the boundless, juxtaposed, expectation-altering actions of Jesus it is our human feet that Jesus washes. And, after the close of this farewell discourse where Jesus offers a gallery of symbolic images and illustrations about divine love and grace…the vine, the way, the truth, the life….we are given Jesus’ parting gift.
Jesus prays for us. For us.
Jesus isn’t praying just for those specific disciples gathered at that place and time, nor generally praying for all humanity. Jesus very specifically prays for those who are his followers, who claim their identity and discipleship as people of Christ:
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Jesus’ parting gift to us is to pray for holy oneness, in the name of Christ.
I come back to this image of the Ascension, as we stand together with those other disciples, called in Jesus’ name, awestruck and perhaps a bit terrified as we gaze heavenward, trying to catch that last, parting glimpse of Jesus who is brought into the eternal glory of all that is God. Our reading from Acts gives us a sense of how those early followers of Christ responded. As the gathered disciples are gazing heavenward, two messengers of God join them to relay a divine message: “why do you stand, looking up toward heaven?” or maybe, I could paraphrase that: “why do you keep staring at Jesus’ feet?” They are reassured again, in that moment, of the two-way, continuing relationship initiated by God and revealed in the unfolding of Jesus’ reign on earth, as it is in heaven.
This band of awestruck followers returns to Jerusalem, together. They set out, of course, on foot. They enter the place that they share together as a house of worship and community. They devote themselves, constantly, to prayer. They hold with them the knowledge that they are the hands and feet, the eyes and ears and mouth of Jesus. They share in this holy oneness of common prayer, pondering the ways in which they might live into Christian life not only in their own community but in the whole world. The awe of the ascension and the fervor of their prayers fill us with great anticipation of the birth of what we will come to know as the Church.
But that is a sermon topic for next week, so I don’t want to step on any toes, literally or figuratively!
Today, we are standing together in the glory of the ascended Christ, caught between our desire to look heavenward with awe, and our exhortation to be the feet that walk the Good News of Christ into all corners of the world.
Jesus’ prayer for us is the invitation to holy oneness, with each other, through the power of the resurrected and ascended Christ.
Stop staring at Jesus’ feet. Pray, eat, and be transformed. Be Christ to the world.
Do this together, as Jesus reminds us, in remembrance of me.