by Fred & Gloria Strickert
Ascension Day on the Mount of Olives
For a number of years now, the ELCA communications people have promoted a tagline that goes with the ELCA logo. God’s work. Our hands. That’s a clear way of describing our responsibility as Christians living out the resurrection in the world around us. What we do is not really our own accomplishments. It’s God’s work. Yet God chooses to employ our hands in carrying out these things on earth.
This is not a new idea. Martin Luther used this imagery in his explanation of the First Commandment, “People are the hands, the channels, the means by which God bestows all blessings.”
A few summers ago the ELCA invited congregations to submit short video that demonstrated the ways in which they were using their hands to carry out God’s work in their communities. Of the hundreds of submissions the best of the best were shown at the Churchwide assembly in Minneapolis where we were amazed at all the creative ways that highlighted the hands of congregational members. White hands, black hands, olive colored and brown. Tiny hands of a young child dwarfed by the large hands of a father. Soft dainty hands and scarred calloused hands. The hand of a newborn and the wrinkled blotched vein-protruding hands of the elderly. Dirty or clean, open or grasping an object, embracing another or lifting them up. God’s work, our hands.
I thought of this hands-on imagery this week as we have come to that part of the church year called Ascension. That point where we acknowledge an end to Jesus’ resurrected appearances on earth. A point in time that Luke calculates somewhere in the range of 40 days. It is that moment when Jesus’ healing hand recedes so that ours reaches forward. Where Jesus’ embrace of the children coming to him gives way to our own hugs and embraces, where in a sense Jesus hands over God’s work to his disciples and to us.
Here in Jerusalem, we mark Ascension Day with an afternoon service at the Augusta Victoria Hospital Ascension Church and then recess out to the eastern ridge of the Mount of Olives (with Mount Nebo off in the distance.)
Most of the great artists depict the ascending Jesus lifting up his hands in a farewell blessing, while the disciples stand there on the same Mount of Olives gazing up into the heavens until awakened from this trance by the proclamation of angels.
This is one of the dangers of depicting the ascension with that first century cosmological world view of Jesus floating up into the sky—as it raises the visions of religious people upward and away from this world we live in. Thus the focus through much of Christianity that religion teaches how to go to heaven, as if nothing in this present life really mattered. It follows when Christians neglect the environment and show disregard for neighbor. It is exhibited when fundamentalists proclaim the end of the world, turning Israelis and Palestinians into pawns in this Armaggedon 3-D battle, and promoting a rapture theology where the earth is abandoned.
But the angels turn our heads downward to see the world around us.
If I were an artist painting the ascension, I think I would offer a change of perspective. Instead of the disciples looking up to Jesus raising his hands in blessing, it would be looking down from Jesus’ perspective. Looking down, not to focus on the hands, but on Jesus’ feet and the disciples’ feet. Yes even the footprints of Jesus there on the hillside below.
Jesus' muddy and blood-stained footprints are all over the pages of the gospels.
• Can you see Jesus' footprints in the wilderness as he faces each temptation under the strain of hunger and thirst?
• Can you see the wet footprints on the jagged rocks along the Galilean Sea as Jesus called his disciples?
• Can you see Jesus’ footprints northward across the West Bank to sit with the Samaritan woman at the well?
• Can you see Jesus’ footprints crossing to the other side of the Jericho road to bind up the wounds of the man beaten by robbers?
• Can you see Jesus’ footprints beneath the sycamore tree, where he invited Zaccheus to come down and walk over to his house together for a plate of hummus and pita?
• Can you see the dirty, muddy footprints of Jesus plastered over the floor of the upper room where he put first his own disciples in washing their feet?
• Can you see the blood-stained footprints along the Via Dolorosa and Golgotha, loving us to the end?
• Can you see the footprints on the Mount of Olives, as if Jesus were leaving behind a road map for us to follow?
From that day in the Synagogue in Nazareth, the Holy Spirit moved Jesus in certain directions, not others. He had said it would be so in his first sermon when he read from the scroll of Isaiah. "The Spirit has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God's jubilee." When Jesus finished that reading, he said, "Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." This is my road map. This is how I will walk on the earth. Come, follow me.
The Spirit that anointed Jesus now anoints you and me. That's what Jesus tried to tell his disciples before he left them. "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses." On this earth where I left my footprints.
Maybe this is why one of the first pilgrim records describing churches on the Mount of Olives mentions a footprint in stone—Bishop Arculf mentioned it in 670 A.D. and it’s still visible in the Mosque of the Ascension, not far from our church.
Not so much that this stone indentation represented the extraordinary physical force necessary to launch into heaven. Not so much to mark the exact spot. But to remind us that this is where we are called. God’s work. Our feet.
I like the imagery of God’s work, our hands. But sometimes we’re too much the fix-it people, and judge things on what we accomplish with our hands, even when it is God’s work. But it’s not just doing that matters. It’s also being that’s important. Being in relationship. Being in accompaniment. God’s work. Our feet.
Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)
Christ Has No Body
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
by Fred & Gloria Strickert