There is a double truth in this feast, and this year leaves us more ready to see it, perhaps. Already we have encountered a day that taught two unlikely truths—unlikely and seemingly discordant—but both true and true at the same time when either, let alone both, can astound us. This was one of the rare years when Good Friday and the Feast of the Annunciation fell on the same day. Christ is given and taken from the Blessed Virgin in one movement. The moment when the incarnation begins as the Virgin assents to Gabriel’s message is the same moment when the flesh that the Eternal Son of God assumes goes the way of all flesh and dies. What is more unlikely than the eternal God making a dwelling within the limits of young woman’s body and taking flesh so as to dwell among us? If anything is more unlikely than that, it is that God—the son of God by whom all things were made, the very expression of the Father’s being and the form echoed in all creation’s existence—that the Son of God taking human flesh, should die in such agony and in such isolation.
We do not comprehend the incarnation until we recognize that he was born into our mortal life, and so born towards death, and we do not grasp the mystery of his death until we understand that the eternal trinity has taken death into the divine life. And that is more than we can understand.
Now the mystery of the Ascension shows us that he is no longer with us, but that we are with him. He withdraws from his disciples and they see him no longer. Language bent past all experience speaks of him being taken up, of clouds receiving him, and the words become strange as soon as “up” gets applied to anything very far from the earth. “Up” only makes sense in a small bit of what we know of the universe.
Of course, there is no way to speak of this event, even as there is no way to speak of the resurrection itself. Read the gospels: we always get to the tomb too late. The resurrection occurs, and our Lord walks free of the tomb and even the guards fail to see. Here too is a mystery, a transformation, an action of God that mortals cannot begin to capture. However we imagine or draw, describe or picture the event, it defies our skill and we are left with words bent beyond the usual meaning. He was raised from the dead in a body concrete enough to break bread, to offer his wounds to be touched; and yet he is transformed, not always recognized, and unhindered by locked doors. Now that body, in its beauty and in its otherness, is no longer within this world but is with God.
We can hardly find language to describe his coming. His death breaks words as well as hearts and his resurrection explodes what we know about the structure of things, and now, the one whose presence with the disciples had transformed Thomas’ doubt and dried Mary’s tears, that had restored Peter after his failure, and had opened hearts and eyes to understand the scriptures at Emmaus is taken into heaven. And though he has gone far beyond our reach, he has taken us with him.
One poet tries to describe this scene the disciples saw to make a particular point:
The arms had stretched as if for flight
The five scars glowed
The chest lifted as if for breath
And his heels as if for dancing,
Between, beneath his toes
The red clay clung and kissed them
Listen to that detail. The Ascending Lord returns with feet still marked with earth’s dust, with the clay from which we were made. The wounds are there, but there too is the red clay.
Our humanity and even the dust of the earth from which God fashions humanity is carried by Christ into this new creation, into the presence of the Father. It is not simply that this mystery tells us Christ is not here, it tells us that he is now standing before the Father for us. Scripture tells us that Christ ever lives to make intercession for us. Christ leaves this earth having loved it to the end and beyond the end to a new beginning. Because he loves us we can imagine him loving the clay that clung to his toes. Christ leaves all of this and goes into the Presence of the Father and there completes his work for our salvation, for the healing of our humanity, for the renewal of creation. There, as at this altar, the passion and death are recalled and claimed as the sufficient grounds for mercy. It’s not just that he is not here; he is there on our behalf and because he carries those wounds, and even that clay, because he prays for us we are there as well.
This day marks a twofold mystery not unlike that confluence of Annunciation and Passion, in that day he was given and taken away. Today he is taken away and given to us. We cannot see his journey and our vision will not reach to the place where he stands, but this day gives him to us. He stands there with something more than the dust of this earth on his feet: he stands there with our names on his heart as he prays for us. And because he carries so much of us and of this creation, we can trust his promise: “Lo, I am with you always to the end of the ages.”
Christ ascends far above all heavens and he remains with us. We no longer see him, but he holds our names on his heart and so we are there with him. He has gone beyond our sight, and yet calls us and carries us forward until we stand, dirty feet and all, with him in the glory that transcends all our understanding, in the glory that reconciles all paradox.
If we believe this, we can live fully and firmly planted on this earth and in this city. This conviction lets us grow comfortable in the flesh which he assumed, and this faith gives us hope that the Holy Spirit will make effective our efforts towards service and witness. To believe this truth is to know that our lives open out beyond the limits of our sight and that we are already at home in that place we have not yet seen. He stands in glory and speaks our name, he carries us on his heart, and maybe even some red clay on his feet. Knowing that he stands there on our behalf, faith sees here more than the mind can grasp. Hope gives energy and strength, and the love that Christ has for us enables and strengthens and widens our love.
That finally is the paradox of this day. All that Christ has done and the prayer that he offers now is extended and carried forward in the work we do, in the prayer we offer. He carries our name and even the dust of the earth with him, and through the power that the Spirit brings our life, this community, our bodies are made members of his body and if the Christ carried our dust into glory, there is glory here and now.
 The Collected Poems of John Wheelwright, p 21
Preached by Fr. David Cobb
The Feast of the Ascension
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia