John Singleton Copley: The Ascension (1775)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Rejoicing in His Absence
Remember Cold Mountain, North Carolina, from the book or movie?
Inman travels towards it, coming home from the Civil War,
as we anticipate his return to his true love, Ada.
It was also the backdrop for a sunset I once saw near
Just before the sun dropped, nearly three dozen people arrived.
Couples with children. Couples without children. Middle-aged
And people in their eighties who had dressed up for the
We all stood or sat on rocks in the gathering twilight,
taking in the show,
the blues and purples and pinks,
talking and anticipating the grand finale.
Suddenly the sun came out from behind a long cloud, fiery orange,
It lit up everyone’s faces as we looked back at the purple
A mother told her daughter, “It’s almost gone.”
Two lovers broke off their amorous attentions.
And several kids repeated, “It’s going!"
"There’s not much left!" "There it goes!”
And then – it was gone.
And there was an instant of silence.
And then – applause!
Three dozen people on Jump-Off Rock gave their hearty
review of the sun
at the curtain call of that day’s performance, along
with those in supporting roles
- the clouds, Cold Mountain and all its neighbors,
the Pisgah Forest,
the purples, blues, reds, pinks and oranges -
And, to my way of thinking, to the Director of the whole show.
Unlike sunset watchers, the early disciples didn't know when the return would be.
And yet, they rejoiced.
Maybe they even applauded, if people did that back then.
And then they returned.
And they waited for the gift that would make them witnesses to all the world,
And proclaim good news when the news is bad,
trust light when it’s dark,
and even, although it’s increasingly harder,
when convinced that we have it all,
or deserve it all now, we, too, even now wait:
For a savior to be in our midst,
for the kingdom to come,
for our troubles to be healed by someone,
because God knows we can’t seem to solve them all
including all the troubles of the world
which mirror our own:
For racism to be healed;
for ethnic and religious warfare to be healed;
for ageism and sexism and homophobia to be healed;
for the dead we have loved to be raised.
All the evidence suggests that that savior packed up and left a long time ago.
And yet, on this day we celebrate his absence!
On this day we take a leap, because from that point on,
he was going to have to be present in a new way,
if he was to be present at all.
Maybe the absence of God is underrated.
Like silence, if we can get someplace without the noise and
we appreciate more the sounds that matter that we suddenly
Like the absence of someone who cares about you,
it becomes clearer than ever how important
that person was to you in the first place.
And so it is that in his absence, the Spirit of God will still catch you,
and somehow, by some power completely outside yourself,
you will, like those first disciples, no longer look up to the
but at those around you, and you will minister to each
and to the world the way he ministered to them,
showing them forgiveness,
and challenging them to go beyond what they
thought was possible
in terms of who could be called
a child of God,
precious in God’s sight.
And what a beautiful sight that will be!
Scott L. Barton
(Reprised from 2015)
Then [Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
+ + +
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”