You probably think I have had a bit of a brain fade, but there is a sense in which today is really the end of the season of Christmas, not of Easter.
At Christmas we celebrate God coming down to us, in the shape of a baby, vulnerable and helpless, as all babies are, pure and innocent, as all babies are. God comes to us as a clean slate, a new beginning , someone as yet untouched by the world into which he has been born, just as all babies are. But he is born into a maelstrom of hardship, sin and hatred, as all babies are too. His hands will grow calloused in the carpenter’s workshop. His feet will ache from walking the roads of Galilee. And in the end he will hang battered and bloody, on the cross. Even when he rises from death, his body will still bear the scars the world has inflicted on him.
And that is the body which, according to the stories we hear on Ascension Day, rises into heaven. Not the cherubic baby, with silky smooth skin and tiny, perfect, sea-shell ears, but the body marked by the hardships of life and death.
It was shocking – offensive even – to the people of Jesus’ time to imagine that God could be found in the form of a crucified man. Crucifixion was a disgrace, a sign of God’s rejection. Jewish law forbade those who were diseased or disabled entry into the Temple. Mangled bodies were unholy, a sign of God’s rejection, a sign of failure. Gentile Greek thought idealised physical beauty too – there was nothing unusual about this equation between physical and moral beauty. The Greeks even used the same word – kalos – to mean beautiful and morally good; think of all those ancient sculptures which celebrated the perfect body. Morality and appearance were inextricably linked. That’s something we’ve never entirely shaken off, but at the time of Jesus it was almost unquestioned. How, then, could Jesus possibly be God’s Messiah?
That’s why the early church set so much store by Ascension Day, why it mattered so much to them. It was the proof to them that you could be battered, mangled, suffering, a complete failure in the world’s eyes, and yet be loved and honoured by God. And that’s why it seems to me that this day is the completion of Christmas, the completion of Christ’s work of incarnation. At Christmas, Christ came down to us, to be where we are. But on Ascension Day, he took us back with him into heaven, wounds, scars and all. He took into heaven the mess of the world, a world where young men grow up so twisted inside that they think it is a good idea to blow up children and young people enjoying a pop concert. He presented that world to his Father, the world which had torn him apart, whose scars he bore, and his Father didn’t turn away in disgust. Instead, in the beautiful words of Revelation 21, he turned towards it – towards us - and turns towards us still, wiping every tear from our eyes, and making all things new.
It doesn’t matter that today we know that heaven isn’t in the sky, that the “up” and “down” of this story doesn’t really work for us anymore. The message is the same. We are where God is, just as we are. God is where we are, just as God is. There’s no barrier, no wall, nothing that divides us. There’s nothing that we can do, or can have done to us, which keeps us apart from God. We don’t have to hide what is broken or ugly in us. We don’t have to reject what is broken or ugly in others. That means that we are set free to love and to forgive ourselves and others too. In the face of sin and evil such as we have seen this week, we are set free to cry “Lord, have mercy,” instead of “Lord, take vengeance”.
Just as he was, scarred and battered, Jesus was taken into the heart of his Father on Ascension Day. Just as we are, scarred and battered – scarring and battering -we are taken into his heart today too, so that he can make all things new in us.