May 21, 2023 – Ascension Sunday – Luke 24:44-53
On July 29, 1969, it is estimated that between 125 and 150 million people turned on their TV’s to watch as the Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the surface of the moon, making it the single most viewed broadcast in American television history. Want to guess what the second most viewed broadcast was? Here’s a clue: it’s the same event that won 12 of the other top 15 slots . . . the Super Bowl. There have only been two other broadcasts to break into the top 15: the resignation of Richard Nixon, coming in at a shameful number 10, and in the number 13 slot . . . it was on February 28, 1983 . . . any guesses? There’s a fairly good chance that you were watching because 106 million Americans tuned into CBS that night . . . the final episode of MASH. If you didn’t see it when it aired, you’ve probably seen it since in syndication. The last few minutes of the program are etched in so many people’s minds – BJ still not wanting to say good-bye because he wanted to believe that he and Hawkeye would see one another again stateside, Hawkeye being more realistic about the chances that they may in fact never see one another again, the two men embracing, BJ riding off on his motorcycle, Hawkeye going up in the helicopter – and then seeing that his friend had said good-bye after all, spelling it out with stones on the chopper pad so that Hawkeye would see it as the helicopter took off. Even though I’ve seen it multiple times in the 40 years since it aired, it still makes me tear up to watch it. And I think it chokes me up, at least in part, because it makes me think about good-byes in general – how difficult they are, and how much I dislike them.
When Jesus ascended to be with his heavenly Father, it must have been a very difficult good-bye It’s not that they hadn’t said good-bye before – Good Friday had been a terrible goodbye. They had thought it was the final one. But then Easter restored Jesus to them. And throughout the 40 days after Easter, Jesus had been popping up in their lives, letting them know that he was still around, albeit in a different sort of way than he had been around before his crucifixion. Even though after Easter, they didn’t see him all the time from sun-up to sundown, they did see him enough to know that he hadn’t left them totally alone. But this good-bye at the ascension – it seemed pretty final – Jesus disappearing from their view and being lifted up into the sky. That must have felt permanent. And yet, as Luke describes the scene in his gospel, the disciples didn’t seem sad at all. Luke says that they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy! Does that make sense to you? I’ve never said good-bye to a loved one and felt great joy. I have said good-bye to people who are moving away and felt happy for them because of the new opportunities their move would bring them. Happy for them, but not joyful. I have said good-bye to people when I was the one to go and felt excitement about the road ahead of me. Excited about the future, but not joyful about saying good-bye. I have said good-bye to loved ones in death and felt relieved for the end of their suffering, or felt peace because I know they are with the Lord – but joy isn’t what I’ve felt. So it’s hard to understand why the disciples felt great joy in saying good-bye to Jesus as he floated up into the clouds.
We think of good-byes as sad. But did you know that the word good-bye actually comes from “God be with you.” That means that the word good-bye is actually a blessing. And in fact, if you look closely at the description of the Ascension in Luke’s gospel, you’ll see that Jesus lifts his hands to bless his disciples, and while he is blessing them, he is taken up to heaven. So the last glimpse they get of Jesus is of him raising his hands in blessing – saying, if you will, good-bye, God be with you. How could one receive Jesus’ blessing and not feel joyful?
In addition, I have to wonder if maybe the disciples understood that it wasn’t really good-bye because Jesus wasn’t really going away. Yes, he was going to be with the Father, as he had said. No, they wouldn’t see him physically any more. But he had promised to be with them always, and even though they might not have understood what that meant (they would understand a lot better 10 days later after the Holy Spirit came to them on Pentecost – but that was still in the future at the Ascension) – maybe they didn’t understand exactly how Jesus would be with them always, but they had been around him enough to know that when Jesus promised something, they could count on it to be true. Jesus never really goes away. He will never leave us – that’s his promise.
This reminds me of some symbolism about our Paschal candle. We light the Paschal candle at Easter in celebration of Christ’s resurrection. It is a symbol of Jesus’ risen presence with us, and we keep the candle lit all through the season of Easter. According to an old tradition, however, including in the way that I, personally, was taught – the Paschal candle was extinguished at the reading of the Gospel on Ascension Day. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that done. But how sad it would feel to watch the Paschal candle being snuffed out in the middle of the service. Like this: Extinguish the Paschal candle. It’s like saying, “Jesus has left the building.” Except he hasn’t. He may have physically left the earth on Ascension Day. (Relight the Paschal candle.) But his risen presence is still here. So my strong preference is to keep the candle lit all through the Easter season.
On this Ascension Sunday, as you picture Jesus being carried up to heaven, see him with his hands raised, blessing you. And know that he did not say, is not saying, and will never say good-bye. He is saying “God be with you till we meet again.” And indeed, we will meet him again – and not just in the future, not just in heaven, but here and now.