Ascension Day is one of the principal feasts of our church. In that curious arrangement of days in the church calendar, some are ranked as more important in the history and tradition of our faith than others. Ascension Day ranks right up there with Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas. On these most holy days, we hope that the church will gather to worship, pray, and celebrate. This year we are praying and worshiping and celebrating in our own way, in this way, with the aid of a great deal of very recent technology on platforms like YouTube. I’m glad that we can worship God this way.
Ascension Day is probably the great feast of our church about which I have encountered some of the most vigorous discussions. Particularly among people who are leaders in the church. There are often discussions around this time of year about whether the Ascension—the taking up of Jesus into the heavenly places—is something that is to be understood as factual and historically accurate or not. Is Jesus literally defying gravity, rising from the ground and disappearing into a cloud, or are these events to be understood as metaphor, symbol, myth, legend; some story that reveals a greater truth even if it’s not entirely factual. I’m not going to spend this homily trying to persuade you one way or the other on that argument. I think at this moment in our lives, there is something more timely about this feast for us to consider.
The events of Ascension Day, however they are read, underscore powerfully the ways in which so much of our understanding of the human body for so long has been deeply, deeply flawed. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that in the forty years or so that I have been around, I have seen a great many messages from a great many sources telling me that there are all manner of things wrong with my body. The way it looks, the way it is shaped, the colour of my hair, the colour of my eyes, the colour and complexion of my skin, the quality of various parts of my body, and so on. And, to be sure, at any given moment there are parts of my body that do not work as I might want or as might have been intended. Medical conditions, souvenirs of accidents and trauma, and other scars from life are all very real. I do not intend for this homily to be a comment on any of those things. What I am referring to is the commentary that we invent about our own bodies, usually with the motivation to try and control other people.
For example, if I can convince you that your hair is the wrong colour, then I can probably sell you something to change the colour of your hair. If I can convince you that your body is flawed and I have a solution, then I can make some money. There’s nothing wrong with changing the colour of your hair if that’s something you want to do, but if the motivation comes from my persuading you in the first place that it needs doing, there’s cause for concern.
If we move past that and look to more insidious things, this becomes even more concerning. Like policing which parts of your body can be seen by other people and at what times, which parts of your body are acceptable to be heard about, talked about, even to have their existence acknowledged. How you use that body, the functions of your body that we will or won’t acknowledge, and how you will be told that those bodily functions—whether in the bathroom or the bedroom or elsewhere—are dirty and so unworthy, so unclean, that even talking about them is socially unacceptable. This is a brilliant way to try and control people. By telling them that their bodies—which they’re stuck with; you can’t trade yours in for a new one—are somehow unsuitable. Unworthy. Need policing because they’re unclean and dangerous. Even when those bodies are exactly as God made them.
The reason that I think about all of this on Ascension Day is because we have these readings in the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel where Jesus ascends. He rises up and disappears into a cloud. He is taken away into the heavenly places. Remember, Jesus has human flesh. He is fully human and fully divine. His body is like yours and mine. This human body goes into heaven and sits at the right hand of the throne of God. Human flesh was taken on by God in the Incarnation which we remember at Christmas, the same body that was resurrected at Easter, the same body that ascends today. The same kind of human body that you and I have. The same kind of human body that we have spent such a long time telling one another is dirty and nasty and unworthy and unsuitable.
The incredible damage that this teaching has done to so many people is stunning. The outcome of that teaching, that bodies are so dirty and unworthy that we can’t ask questions about them. The teaching that we can’t engage with bodies honestly, that everything has to be veiled and sheltered and talked about in euphemisms because it’s impolite to mention certain parts of these bodies. The fear and ignorance this has created, the damage this has done to people over generations is staggering.
It is even more staggering when considered in the face of the earthly life and ministry of our Lord Christ, who chooses to take on human flesh.. Human bodies are not only worthy because they are made as God has deemed them to be and God has called them good, but so beautiful, so worthy, so wonderful that God chooses to inhabit one as part of the plan for our salvation. The human body is so wonderfully and fearfully made, so beautiful as the image and likeness of God that human flesh sits at the right hand of the throne of God.
There is so much to talk about on Ascension Day. But this year, beset by plague where we worry day and night about infection, about the cleanliness of our bodies, about germs and bacteria and viruses, hand sanitizers, and face masks, we might stop and reconsider. We might reconsider as we worry so much about these bodies that have so often been the excuse for othering, for shaming. Reconsider why the appearance of a person’s body has been used as an excuse to make them a slave, to deem them less than human. Reconsider why the love expressed between people with their bodies has been as an excuse for violence and murder.
For bodies to be treated this way, to be made scapegoats for this kind of violence, in the face of teaching from a God who sees those same bodies as worthy of sitting at the throne, is not good or holy. This year seems to be a time to reconsider how we, as Christians, think and speak about the worth of our bodies and the bodies of our neighbours.
In a year full of so many prayers for healing and wholeness, for the restoration of bodies, for the preservation of bodies, for the wellness of our physical selves in relationship with our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual selves,—for we also know that human beings are whole beings not readily divided into parts—perhaps we reconsider. In this year full of concern about bodies, on Ascension Day, thinking about the body: the body risen to heaven, the Church which is the mystical Body of Christ, I think it’s time. Time that we begin to see human bodies not as dirty, not as unworthy, but as beautiful. Not as ways to control one another, but as incredible creations of God worthy of being celebrated.
Beautiful bodies worthy of sitting at God’s right hand in the heavenly places.
You are beautiful.
Preached at Holy Trinity Church, Winnipeg.