I’ve never thought much about who was there at Jesus’ ascension. We read it twice today, in two different versions, and I bet we’re all imagining a group of men – the twelve who are etched into our religious imaginations by our gospel authors. But when I was in Greece last Fall, I was surprised to find that in all the Ascension artwork I saw – and I saw a lot at the many monasteries and nunneries we visited – Mary, the mother of Jesus was included. And not only was she included, she was central. As Jesus was lifted up, the men on either side of Mary looked up at him, watching him depart. But not Mary. Mary stood in the position of prominence, just under Jesus’ disappearing feet, looking straight ahead and into the eyes of the viewer of the painting.
I don’t know why I’d never thought about her being there before. We get a clue (that the Greek Orthodox church latched onto tightly) in Acts 1:14, when the author lists those who’ve gone back into Jerusalem to pray after Jesus’ Ascension, and there she is: Mary the Mother of Jesus (along with other women, I might add).
I love this image, and I wish so badly that Luke would have given us some more information about Mary’s role, her thoughts, her words, her prayers. Luckily for you all, I happen to have found access to a top secret scroll that was just discovered, having been buried in the depths of the Vatican centuries ago: a portion of Mary’s Journal. And I’m going to read it to you today. I will say that it is kind of amazing that it was found in English! And that Mary’s writing style and voice just happens to sound a lot like my own… 😉
An excerpt from Mary’s journal, on the Ascension of Jesus:
“Can you hold me?” When he was little, Jesus used to ask me this each night. He was almost always on the move, from the time he could walk, but when he slowed down, he came to me. I spent most of his life trying to keep up with him, though. I followed Jesus’s toddling steps, trying my best to keep him from bumping his head on anything sharp, holding and rocking him when we was sick; I followed him as a teenager – watching him make friends and learn – keeping him safe at a further distance; I followed him as he preached in Galilee. Not always knowing what he meant or where he was headed – I kept watch over him still, as best I could. I followed him into Jerusalem and all my protective mama-powers and prayers fell flat. I held him and rocked him after his death and thought of my sick and sleepy toddler asking, “Can you hold me?”
I was there at the beginning and I was there at what I was devastatingly sure was the end. But then, it wasn’t the end. Jesus was gone, but then he was somehow raised. I had my child back for 40 glorious days before I had to let him go again. I stayed as close as I could to him, made my home with his disciples in Jerusalem, we spoke together, ate together, I held him close. But I could feel somehow that he’d be on the move again soon. He told us to wait. I knew him well enough to know that meant something was about to happen. He never could slow down for very long.
Still, the waiting was excruciating – staying in the city that turned on my baby so quickly and so violently. I wanted to get myself and him as far away from this place as I could. I tried to convince him, but no. We were to wait for the promise of the Father. This was not my first time waiting for the promise of the Father. It reminded me of the nine months of waiting I’d done all those years ago.
Now we were waiting for the Holy Spirit. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” Jesus told us. This was a strange concept for John & Peter and the rest, but not me – I’d experienced the Holy Spirit before. My memory of the angel, Gabriel, over three decades before, rushed back into my mind – my fear, the promise of a child, my demand “But how can this be?” and the angel’s response: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Yes, I know something of the Spirit.
There’s no good way to describe her – the Spirit of God. Like a dark and wondrous cloud of divinity, like a mystery, like a kind embrace, like a raging thunderstorm. She is a dove gently lighting on your shoulder one minute, or she is a flame of fire bright and bold and dangerous the next. God’s Spirit and power overshadowed me all those years ago – transforming me as parent and as prophet; empowering me as mother and original witness to God incarnate. I know from experience that there is no controlling or containing the Holy Spirit.
I noticed the cloud, that familiar sparkling darkness of divine presence that had once overshadowed me, before the others. As it became visible and surrounded Jesus like a welcoming embrace, the questions and dreams we had for Jesus all of a sudden seemed much too small. I think it was James who asked whether Israel’s political power would finally be restored. And as soon as the words tumbled out of his mouth, even he knew what a small and thin request that was. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” Jesus said. There are no borders in the kingdom of God. These were his last words before he was swept away, like Elijah.
And all the wildest hopes that Jesus’ resurrection planted in my heart and mind suddenly became much wilder. Jesus didn’t ascend to the throne of Israel, his ascent was to the bosom and power of the God of all creation. My Jesus, the weak one, the condemned one, the one who broke all the religious rules and was in turn broken by the religious rules, my Jesus, who cared for the poor, healed the sick, befriended outcasts, who WAS an outcast – my Jesus is the power and love and presence and judgment and mercy of God. I know my child. This is good news for us all.
As the disciples stared up into the sky blankly, half-expecting Jesus to re-appear, I knew better. This was a moment of conception – God’s Spirit was birthing something new. This was another kind of birth, and this would be a different kind of family. Nevertheless, my role as witness and mother, prophet and preacher would continue.
I turned and began the walk back toward Jerusalem. Over my shoulder I heard the angelic messengers speak to the others, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” I gestured to them over my shoulder, “Come on, then, children.”
(the papyrus is torn off and worn away at this point…but maybe we’ll discover more of her journal some other time, you never know!)
Mary is our best witness to the life of Jesus. She’s the person who knew him best, who loved him most, who he adored and learned from. She was with him, her baby, more than anyone, and yet aside from the birth narrative, we only pick up on her unwavering presence from small moments and clues here and there in scripture. The fact that we have even those, like the picture of her praying in the upper room in today’s scripture, tells us that her voice and presence was insightful and important, a founding force in the early church.
Perhaps the insight of Greek orthodox artwork is right, and Mary is the first to realize the task before those early believers – to re-direct their gaze to earth, to humanity, to their own context in the world. Don’t just stand there looking into the sky, there’s work to be done, the Spirit of God is on the move. Ironically, it’s this culture, this world, this context that Mary turns her gaze toward that does its best to erase her from the narrative from this point forward.
Mary is the mother of all the forgotten people, the shoved-to-the-margins people, the people who have a front row seat to what God is doing, but who are in the cheap seats of the religious world, far away from positions of power.
What voices around us are we overlooking? Who’s experience of the Spirt to we downplay or ignore? Who would we rather relegate to a prayer closet than listen to their stories? If we have eyes to see, Mary’s persistence invites us to notice the forgotten, to search out their stories from between the patriarchal lines, even of our sacred scripture.
Covenant – may we remember the forgotten ones today.