You probably know some of Roald Dahl’s work, books like James and the Giant Peach or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I’ve read the complete set with Tennyson over the past couple years. But the last book I read, the final books we read, was Boy, Roald Dahl’s autobiography.
It was in this book that we begin to see the influences of Dahl’s life on his children’s fiction. He tells stories about the candy store around which his world revolved when he was a young child. He recounts the canings he received from a vicious school master, and stories of being sent away for boarding school.
But what I stuck out to me was the influence of Dahl’s father on his books. If you know his writings, you’ll remember that many of the children in the stories are orphaned. His books lament the absences of parents, in particular the absence of fathers. And I learned in Boy that Dahl’s father died suddenly of pneumonia when Dahl was only four years old.
It’s the book Danny the Champion of the World where I started to see Dahl tracing the outlines of his lost father. There’s a stunning tenderness about Dahl’s depiction of the father in this story, a perfect world of devotion and adventure. You can see Dahl filling in the spaces of a father he barely knew, filling in the gaps with stories, marking the absence on the page through this character. He reconstructs a world with this father, longing filling the pages.
Today we’re remembering the Ascension, a strange sort of celebration for people who have been left behind, a celebration of absence. Someone once observed that the only reason the disciples went away joyfully after Jesus is taken back to God is that they had no idea how long Jesus would be gone. They thought, a week or two, maybe a month or a year. But all these days, piling into weeks and years, decades turn into millennia. The absence grows.
Most of the depictions we see of the Ascension do not linger on this absence. Instead, they bring our eyes to Jesus, to other-worldly glory. In paintings and stained glass windows Jesus is hovering above the ground – Jesus surrounded by cloud, by angels, Jesus moving upward. The earth, the trees, the people are all an afterthought. Jesus, radiating light is the center of the image.
But in Albrecht Durer’s woodcut, Jesus is barely visible. Instead, we see just the hem of his robes and the bottom of his feet at the top of the frame. The center of the woodcut is a hill, a smooth mound. And clearly outlined, chiseled into relief are footprints, two footprints. They are the marks left by the feet of Jesus. They remain, the memory of the one who left them, an indentation of memory. In Durer’s woodcut Jesus’ absence is the center. Here longing is the main character of the Ascension.
Ascension gives us a chance to mark absence, to make space for what has passed by. We aren’t always good at this. The church is better at marking new beginnings than we are at saying goodbye. We aren’t sure what to say when someone takes leave. We don’t have ceremonies or rituals for parting, for those who move on to other places, for those who leave church because of disagreement or distress. The edges around leaving are blurred.
It probably felt that way for the disciples. They’re told to wait for something to happen. Ascension is the hinge, swinging open the door between the resurrected Jesus in body and the resurrected Jesus in the bodies of his disciples, in our bodies. Next week is Pentecost. The church is born, Jesus is born again in fire and wind, born in us.
As it is, written on either side of that door are readings from the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts. These books form a set, volumes one and two of the story of Jesus and the earliest followers of Jesus.
In these readings, it is striking that no time passes between Jesus ascending upward and the presence of two people appearing beside the disciples. “Suddenly,” we read, “Suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.” They reassure the disciples, Jesus still drifting in the sky. The men tell the disciples to wait, to gather in Jerusalem. Something is coming, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit is coming.
I know Luke is providing a picture of comfort and continuity. Immediately the disciples are reassured that God’s presence remains alongside of them, without a break, without interruption. And yet, part of me wishes there’d been a pause, a moment for the silence and the wind, a moment for those gathered there to trace their fingers along the edges of Jesus’ footprints, a moment to mark the absence.
That Jesus sends the Holy Spirit doesn’t make the absence disappear. It’s always a reminder, an outline of Jesus footprints on the ground. Jesus longs for life with you. Jesus misses the tangible sharing of life, walking with you after dinner, singing along with you, folding the laundry beside you. That same absence we feel is shared by Jesus, his longing to be near to you.
Absence binds together human life and the divine; human longing for God is now wound up in Jesus’ longing for us. The Holy Spirit moves in and out, through and around all of it. So it’s of note that in Luke’s account of this story Jesus departs from Bethany. It’s a place of great tenderness, of deep friendship. Bethany is home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, Jesus’ closest friends. It is here that Jesus weeps for Lazarus out of his great love.
The place where Jesus takes stock of all that will be lost in his leaving is here at Bethany. It is here, the place of what makes us humans – that we are chosen by another for friendship. This is the place where the absence takes the form of footprints in human hearts, on the hearts of Mary, of Martha, of Lazarus.
Now that Jesus’ body is gone, we spend the time filling in the footprints, seeing what will fit inside the spaces left by Jesus’ life. We read the Bible like someone who spends a quiet evening leafing through old yearbooks or brushing her hand over the perpetually made bed of a child who has left home. We read the Bible as a book about absence, longing for this Jesus we have known only through others, in words, and in stories.
And then Jesus flares up among us. We see him, touch him, encounter him from time to time. Jesus flares up, but only for a moment. These moments are fleeting. We don’t possess them. This matters because it means that, in this life, we don’t control history. God is not on our side, making the world right. We find Jesus, for a moment, and then Jesus is gone, in a different life, another place, sometimes unexpected and sometimes extraordinary. And in the meantime, we mark the absence.
The absence makes space for reminders, other lives and bodies to find their way to us, to see what else fits into the space left by Jesus. And we find so much, that the footprints of Jesus on our hearts are always being filled and emptied.
It comes and goes, and we stay and we wait, return to work on what remains.
What we hear in the Luke is that Jesus leaves this earth blessing the disciples, calling out blessings upon those he loves, trying to get all the blessings out while there is still time, his hands outstretched, shouting them as he is taken up, away from the ones he loves. Perhaps the blessing is to keep finding out what will fill the space left, who and what can be for us Jesus’ body, in the temporary, fleeting moments when we are Christ for another. We keep searching for that blessing, and it keeps arriving, here in the absence.