Sermon: 7 Easter Year A – Where did Jesus’ body go?
May 21, 2023
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Sometimes when I hear stories like the ascension of Jesus, I get really skeptical. Where did Jesus’s body go? The disciples saw him disappear into the clouds. We’ve sent astronauts up past the clouds! We know what’s up there. They didn’t hit the firmament and break through into a heaven filled with angels where the streets are paved with gold. They went into outer space.
Alexei Leonov was a cosmonaut who wanted to be an artist. He was the first person to go on a spacewalk – ever. Perhaps the first person since Jesus himself to float unprotected above the clouds.
The story of that first spacewalk is an exciting and harrowing one. Leonov’s spacesuit inflated from being in the vacuum of space and he could not fit back inside the capsule without draining the air – his breathing air – out into space. The rapid change in pressure gave him the bends. He had a cyanide capsule in case he had to be left behind, but maybe he would run out of air first…… finally he squeezed back inside the capsule. Alive. For 90 minutes he had nothing scheduled for the mission.
FIRST PICTURE (SUNRISE)
His mission partner suggested a nap, but Leonov was too wired from his brush with disaster, and he had just had an experience that no one had ever had before. He had been outside Earth’s atmosphere, no space capsule protecting him, just an expanding air-filled suit. So he took out the colored pencils he had brought as his personal item. Luggage is even more restricted on space flights than it is on today’s airlines. These pencils were nothing fancy. The paper was just a sketchpad. But this was the first art drawn in space. The first image drawn of Earth’s atmosphere from someone who had just seen it from the outside. Drawn by someone who almost didn’t make it back inside the capsule to his pencils.
This colored pencil image of a sunrise from orbit almost didn’t make it back to earth. There were several more near disasters on Leonov’s mission. Including having to manually land the capsule 1500 miles away from where they had planned. That is literally as far away as if they had planned to land in Fresno and ended up landing on my best friend’s house house in Missouri. It is so improbable that this image exists.
The sketch is simple. A couple stripes of black and blue surrounding a stripe of yellow with an orange sun in the middle. The stripes are gently curved, capturing the arc of the earth’s horizon seen from far above. It’s so simple, and yet this one picture communicates so much of the fragility of human existence. The artist almost died before he could draw it. The sketchbook was almost lost before anyone else could see it. Our world itself is just a dark curve at the edge of the drawing. So small, and yet containing all of us humans who ever lived.
Sometimes I think the most important things are understood only with these improbable images. There are things that I can never quite grasp, especially if I think too hard about them. Like how can Jesus be both all human and all God? How does the Trinity work? I can’t say I understand the ascension. Where *did* Jesus’ body go? Sometimes I think I get it, but then it becomes confusing when I try to explain it. There’s some image that captures a moment of understanding, but then they become mysterious again and I go back to trying to measure eternity with a stopwatch.
The thing that really clicks for me is incarnation. God having a human body, like me. We need bodies in order to interact with the world. Our work, our speech, even our thoughts, are accomplished with our bodies. We are incarnational beings. So much of our understanding of the world is literally based on having bodies. When I say I can grasp the concept of the incarnation, I’m speaking metaphorically, but the metaphor of “grasping a concept” is talking about holding on to something with my hands. I understand God having a body and interacting with the world because that is also how I interact with the world.
So when it comes to the ascension, I don’t really know what to say about it. Where did Jesus’ body go? This body that talked and thought and lived and died and rose from the grave. Where did that body go? I can understand God having a body, but I don’t understand what happened at the ascension. Did Jesus ascend up above the atmosphere and see an orbital sunrise like Alexei Leonov? If not, where did Jesus’ body go??
My favorite depiction of the ascension is at this side altar at the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Walsingham has been a holy site for a thousand years. Back in 1061, a woman had a vision of the Virgin Mary, and she was inspired to build a replica of the Holy Family’s Nazareth house in this village in England. It became a famous pilgrimage destination until it was destroyed in the Reformation. In the 1920s and ’30s there was a revival and they rebuilt the Holy House and church. Some things are really nice, like how they used bits of stonework from all these different churches that had been destroyed. It’s a reminder that the church continues to live even when the buildings are broken.
SECOND PICTURE (JESUS TOES)
But then some things are a little bit, oh, silly. As if they got the most literal-minded artists to depict miracles and mysteries. There’s this little altar behind the main altar. It has a fairly standard painting of Mary and Jesus, and then in the ceiling of the chapel there’s a sculpture of the ascension. Well, it’s a sculpture of Jesus’ toes surrounded by silver clouds and rays of golden light. It’s kinda silly. But it also makes me think. Like, what if his toes really were the last bit of Jesus’ body that the disciples saw? Why is it important that we have this image of Jesus’ body ascending into heaven? It’s a sort of improbable image. We know from sending up astronauts that bodies don’t disappear even when they are hidden by clouds. They’re still there, living and breathing, thinking and speaking and making art. Alexei Leonov’s body didn’t disappear. So where did Jesus’ body go?
Looking at the ascension from a narrative perspective, it’s important to wrap up the story. The Holy Spirit is descending upon us next week. Jesus has to get up into heaven so that he can send the spirit to us, right? And how did he get there? He rose from the grave and then just kept on rising, up into the clouds and the heavens above. What I like about this sculpture of the ascension is that it doesn’t attempt to explain where exactly Jesus’s body ascended to. It just gives this glimpse of what the disciples might have seen right at the last second. Jesus’ toes and some rays of light. One last glimpse of the miracle of God incarnate in a human body. Maybe “where did Jesus’ body go?” is not the right question. Maybe the important thing was that God’s body was here, and so tangible, able to be literally grasped. Jesus had toes that were able to be sculpted into a ceiling. I don’t have to understand where Jesus’ body went to literally grasp the reality of the incarnation.
There are still so many things I don’t understand. I am still trying to grasp metaphorical things with my body’s literal hands. When I find myself asking “where did Jesus’ body go?” I remember St. Teresa of Avlia’s words, a poem which captures in such an improbable image the answer to “where did Jesus body go?”
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.