I was privileged to spend my first two summers after college performing at the Sterling Renaissance Festival. The site is in beautiful woodland, close enough to Lake Ontario that on quiet evenings, you can hear the waves lapping on the rocky shore. At Sterling, unlike other festivals, the actors actually lived on the grounds for the season, making the highly fictionalized “Warwick,” in a very real sense, our village, to which we took pride in welcoming crowds of visitors. Some of the friends I made there are among my oldest and dearest, even after 35 years.
I got to perform there again for two summers in the 90s. I remember spending a lot of time walking around the grounds, trying to recapture the magical feelings I had experienced in my feckless youth, and failing. Suddenly, I became aware of a small voice in my head that had been repeating the same words over and over, just outside my field of awareness. They were from the section of the Acts of the Apostles for Ascension Day: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing here looking up into the sky?” (Acts 1:11, EHV)
Why in the world is this verse, of all things, jiggeting about my skull now? I asked myself. After strolling a while longer through “Warwick” with the words in the front, rather than the back, of my head, I realized I had been doing a very similar thing to what the disciples had been doing: looking around for Jesus who was no longer there. Or, in my case, looking for my twenty-two-year-old self, who was—surprise!—also not there.
In his memoir, Chants of a Lifetime, musician Krishna Das tells the harrowing story of the life-threatening crack cocaine addiction he developed after the unexpected death of his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. Had he not had several of what he was convinced were encounters with his glorified guru, Krishna Das says, he might have succeeded in his slow suicide.
I can see some of the Apostles going down a similar path, had not the angels been there to get their heads out of the clouds and their feet on the road. Might the Eucharist have become nothing more than a sad yahrzeit (a Jewish annual rite in remembrance of the dead) had not the angels given the disciples their marching orders? (Of course, Jesus had told them what to do next before his ascension, but the disciples excelled at “not getting it” where stuff their Lord was concerned.) Maybe this is why the resurrected Jesus appeared to the Emmaus travelers; perhaps they would have otherwise just gone home and given up (Luke 24:13-32).
“I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” Jesus quoted Zechariah to his disciples just before his death (Matthew 26:31 NIV). And while Jesus’ chosen band did head for the tall grass until after the Crucifixion, they later regrouped in an extraordinary, world-altering way. I believe they were able to do this because 1) they had seen their resurrected Lord, and 2) the angels were there to tell them to pull themselves together and get a move ons.
Ever since that day at Sterling Faire, my takeaway for Ascension Day is that, Then, however wonderful it was, is not Now. Our job Now is not to mourn for Then, try to recapture Then, or get all dewy-eyed about Then. Our job is to rally round and do the needful Now. Because “in the Present,” said C.S. Lewis, “and they’re alone, all duty, all grace, all knowledge, and all pleasure dwell.”
So why stand around, looking at the sky?
[Image Credit: Public Domain via The Metropolitan Museum of Art]