We often forget that Jesus has toes. In most depictions they are out of sight and thus out of mind, just like the Festival of the Ascension which may well slip right past us this Thursday. Ascension always happens on Thursday and perhaps that is the problem. Liturgically and biblically, Ascension occurs forty days after Easter, based on the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles [Acts 1:6-11]. Most Lutherans will miss the day, COVID-19 or not, simply because it happens on Thursday. When is the last time YOU attended a liturgy on Thursday, save for Maundy Thursday? That liturgy was also cancelled this year thanks to the first week of pestilential closings on Holy Week.
While we would need to be on our toes to remember and then observe the Ascension liturgically, the important thing to remember for the Ascension is Jesus’ toes. Decades ago, when my oldest nephew was a toddler, my task one day was to take care of him in the lobby of the local Catholic hospital where my sister had just given birth to his brand-new sister. My parents were up in the maternity ward with the proud father and his own parents. I got the toddler in the toss. Brian meandered about for a bit while I read. I looked up to see several nuns quietly giggling while he stood at the base of a large statue of St. Francis whose toes stuck out over the ledge. He was tickling the saint’s feet, the “tickle, tickle” faintly audible across the lobby. Years later in Germany, that memory came back to me as I stood in an ancient German Lutheran church which had side altars stashed here and there around the building. One on a stairway landing was dedicated to the Ascension, a rather uninspired 17th century piece save for one detail as far as I now am concerned. The altar carving showed the disciples gawking up into the clouds. Sticking out of the clouds were Jesus’ toes.
Toes are right common, very human digits, usually not that inspiring, and sometimes downright ugly. Some folks have toenails worth painting, but most have toes that we do our best to hide or at least shield from too prominent a display. Our toes remind us that we are probably not all that glamourous or handsome – just pretty much common denominator, garden variety human beings with sagging flesh and weary faces. And so we ask, “Why are Jesus’ toes so blessedly important on the Festival of the Ascension?”
The Ascension is apparently quite significant to the New Testament writers. There are thirteen references and possibly one other one scattered throughout, an impressive amount of chatter about something we usually overlook. It marks Jesus’ completion of his post-resurrection ministry marked by surprise visits, walking through walls, and showing up at the seashore making breakfast for the disciples who have gone back to their fishing. Further references in the letters and other New Testament writings struggle to make sense of his “…being taken up from you into heaven, and will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” [Acts 1:11]
Presently we ourselves struggle “to be church” when the doors are closed to us. I’ve heard several pastors remark about fussy parishioners who posture that the closings prohibit them from worshipping. If we, too, are guilty of this, we likely have domesticated and stuck our worship in a Sunday slot to check off, then go about our week, glad to have fulfilled our spiritual “duty.” The appointed readings for the Ascension refute that. Ascension Day’s gospel, Luke 24:50-53, finds Jesus’ followers on that Thursday way out in Bethany, amazed at the sight of his being “taken up,” worshiping then and there, then returning home “…in great joy.” Remember the children’s Sunday School rhyme that my nephew also knew? Whether we are in the building with its steeple, whether the doors are wide open or closed for a bit to protect God’s beloved, the main issue is “…all the people,” not a big building on a given day. Jesus blessed his disciples and was “…carried up” into heaven. “Carried up” is the same Greek verb structure as “was lifted up” on a cross in the crucifixion. What was lifted up in his eventual death and later carried up to the right hand of the Father, is Jesus, IN THE FLESH, the incarnate Lord still bearing the wounds of calvary. Our Savior is no ghost or phantom; his Oh! so human toes point us to the more sobering reality of his stripes by which we are healed. So, we too have hope because Jesus has brought his mortality and ours into the heavenly kingdom for eternity. What good news that is for a Thursday in May!