For centuries paleontologists as well as theologians tried to understand the progress and development of life as well as the ordering of God’s creation in terms of tidy, step-by-step patterns. Scientists looked for evidence [missing links] of a linear development of anthropoidal ancestors throughout history leading to their present relatives – namely you and me. The Medieval Church similarly developed a narrative called the Great Chain of Being, borrowing from Greek and Roman philosophy. This holy conga-line placed God at the head and progressed through angels, humans, animals, plants, on to minerals. These scientific and theological hypotheses about life’s linear unfolding have been substantially dismissed. Still, the idea of “missing links” aids us a bit in understanding the good news of the Great Fifty Days of Easter. Jesus’ earthly mission sealed with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit concludes the season.
Liturgies draw their meaning from Holy Scripture by focusing our prayer, praise, and reflection on God’s redemptive work from week to week. However, anyone paying close attention from Sunday to Sunday soon realizes that scripture does not set forth a lockstep, linear biopic of Old and New Testament personages, particularly Jesus and his disciples. During Eastertide we recount stories of Jesus and his followers after the resurrection. Matthew tells us of a grieving Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” who come to the tomb early on “the first day of the week.” An angel of the Lord tells them surprising things. They run to inform the disciples and – suddenly – the risen Jesus is in their midst. John’s gospel records that Jesus unleashes the Holy Spirit on them that first night – a far different recalling of these events than Luke’s account in Acts 2. Thomas’ yearning questions are answered by touch, sight, and a bold confirmation of faith. Memories of Jesus sharing meals and time with his bewildered followers offer glimpses of God’s inbreaking kingdom through the fifty days of celebration. This coming Sunday, Easter VII, finds Jesus in fervent prayer that his followers (his friends) be kept safe in communities of love, service, and witness to the saving love of God.
Over the years our lives have become so over-scheduled and cluttered that it is all that many can do just to show up for a bit each successive Sunday. Family, recreation, travel, and the like make it increasingly difficult to keep track of God’s unfolding story of gracious love. Thus, we often experience the Church’s proclamation as a herky-jerky telling, particularly if we miss any of the weekly liturgies. Easter VII marks the forty-third day of the Great 50. The following Sunday lands us on the fiftieth day, pentecostē in Greek. The name is borrowed from the Jewish harvest festival of the first fruits – Shavuot — celebrated fifty days after the Passover. With the Church’s observance of the Spirit’s outpouring, we well might wonder – What happened to Jesus in the meantime? Jesus’ ascent to the right hand of the Father appears to be the missing link.
Luke’s account in Acts 1:1-11 provides the liturgical chronology for Jesus’ being “taken up from you into heaven…” on the fortieth day as well as the promise of the Spirit’s eventual outpouring on the fiftieth day. This means that Jesus’ ascension is observed on the Thursday before Easter VII, although when it occurred is apparently up for debate. Few congregations gather on Thursday for the Ascension liturgy anymore, although it is a singularly important festival. Our crazy lives and schedules now make that pious act difficult in the extreme. Some move the observance to the next Sunday. Somewhat unsettling for those trying to map a chain of these events, this coming Sunday finds Jesus praying with his feet and knees still firmly planted on terra firma. We share early believers’ consternation upon hearing Peter preach that first Pentecost [Acts 2:1-47]. The full force of the events surrounding the Ascension and the Spirit’s outpouring cause us no little wonder and confusion, for as Luke remarks, there are many and varied accounts. Thus, we ask with those listening to Peter and the other disciples: “Brothers, what should we do?”
The answer is not to turn into nitpicking literalists bent on proving a lock-step chronology and pat answers. The Bible without apology presents differing accounts of these events. Luke’s gospel places the Ascension at the end of the day of resurrection; Luke/Acts dates it 40 days later. For John’s gospel the Spirit’s outpouring is the evening after the resurrection; for Luke/Acts it is fifty days later. The point really is, as Luther reminds us in the Large Catechism: “when we seriously ponder the Word, hear it, and put it to use, such is its power that it never departs without fruit.” What we can learn from pondering Easter VII’s “missing link,” the Ascension, is that when Jesus is “lifted up” the full circle of God’s saving work in Christ is sealed. Jesus came to us, born a baby in a pitiful stall, sharing not only in our lives but in the stuff of our lives, too. Jesus, the incarnate God-with-Us, hallowed our mortal “body and blood” by taking on our mortal frame. He makes mortality the saving sign and meal of immortality. In the Ascension he ushers that incarnate mystery back to the throne of God, thereby joining heaven and creation together eternally. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit rushes in to keep us mindful that all of this is about God’s saving love, not tidy chronologies or even elusive, missing links.