Sadness and nostalgia. Excitement and wonder. A graduation contains many complex emotions. Whether one is graduating high school, college, grad school, or any type of training program, it’s a moment where emotions of sadness and nostalgia for past experiences meet the excitement and wonder for a new life that awaits. For high school students and their parents in particular, graduation often marks the point where a child leaves home for the first time and begins their life as an independent adult.
And it is graduation season. Over the past week many schools around the country have been hosting ceremonies to honor those who have finished their studies and are on to the next adventure. Last Sunday, two former members of the Holy Trinity community, seminarians Megan and Paul, graduated from the Lutheran School of Theology, said goodbye to their friends, and began preparing for their first calls as parish pastors.
Last Sunday I missed services here at Holy Trinity to attend a graduation ceremony myself. It was part of a 7-day solo road trip to western South Dakota. As many of you know, before I enrolled in seminary I was a high school math teacher at a small tribal school. The students I taught as 9th and 10th graders joyfully celebrated the completion of their studies and the achievement of their diplomas. I was so happy to see them again, especially at this moment of their lives. As I reveled in this weeklong break from work and classes with former friends and students, I did have one task to do, however. I had to write a sermon.
Where to even start? As far as biblical things go, it’s not a small moment. We even reference it every time we recite the Apostle’s or Nicene Creeds: “On the third day he rose again, he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
But what can one say about this strange story?? Jesus floats away on a cloud, never to be seen again – how bizarre! It certainly doesn’t seem very scientific. Even the narrative doesn’t make sense. Jesus comes back from the dead – is resurrected on Easter – only to leave again now? What? Why so soon? Why not stay here forever, or at least a few years? Where are you going, Jesus!?
I feel better knowing that the disciples ask him these same questions. The Ascension just feels so sudden and unnecessary.
I also wonder how the disciples are feeling in this moment. I wonder if they feel the same sense of sadness and nostalgia, excitement and wonder that I felt this weekend as I said goodbye once again to my former students? Or did the disciples feel more like the many parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters who said goodbye to a young family member about to move away for work or college? Or maybe it was more like how students across the country are feeling as they look back fondly on years of school lunches and yellow buses and corny teachers, even while eagerly looking forward to the unknown future to come.
In some small way, I think graduation may help us understand why Jesus ascended. For us, graduation often leads to a good-bye. Graduation often leads to the absence of one who is loved. In the early Christian community, this goodbye, this absence, is acutely felt. And yet, absence is not really what graduation nor this story is about.
In the community I taught in, students often miss school to take care of their younger siblings or older relatives. As graduation approaches, many struggle with the question of how to balance obligations to their family and loved ones with their desire to further their education after high school. These students are acutely aware of how their absence will affect those that they care about. A common and popular solution to this problem of competing commitments is to attend either a tribal college near town or a state university only a couple hours away so that they can start this next phase of their lives while also being present for those that they love. Even as they leave, these students maintain a real presence in the community.
On Easter, Jesus rises from the dead. Today the Gospels profess that Jesus, the crucified one, ascends to sit on the right hand of God, which is God’s seat of power. Jesus rises to the place where God exerts God’s power and influence in the world over all things. The Ascension event is often warped by some into triumphalism. But Jesus’ power is not the power of empire. It is the power of the cross. From now on we see God’s work and influence in the world through the compassion and love of the risen and still living Christ. Though Jesus leaves, he is not absent. Jesus maintains a real presence in the community, our community. It is the season for sadness and nostalgia, excitement and wonder. Jesus is present in the exciting and imminent onrush of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is present in our joys, a toddler’s first steps. Jesus is present in our pain and sadness, the loss of a loved one, a cancer diagnosis. Jesus is present in our fear, in our wonder, in our rest.
My former students graduate and leave their community in order that they might later return to empower its flourishing. In this absence they care for their families in new ways.
After the Ascension, the disciples are dumbfounded. They gaze skyward, their mouths hanging open. Heavenly messengers chide them: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” This is a good question for us as well. Why are you looking up? What are you searching for?
Jesus departs, but this leave-taking is for us. In this absence Jesus empowers our flourishing. In this absence we experience the fruits of God in our midst.