Ascension: claiming holy ground

Liturgy for The Feast of the Ascension and "Beating the Bounds" services are included as a free, downloadable PDF at the bottom of this article.

There’s a story of a priest who was going through his normal routine of preparing for worship one Sunday morning. As was his custom, he opened the church and walked through the sanctuary, praying for those who would gather in that sacred space that morning. He then walked outside like he did every Sunday, to ensure that the peaceful grounds of the church were in order.

This morning, he noticed that a vagrant was sleeping in the courtyard. To make matters worse, the scruffy outsider had his shoes kicked off and his feet propped up on their statue of St. Francis.

The priest, not wanting to cause a scene with worshipers set to arrive any moment, quickly went to the vagrant and told him that while he was welcome to worship at the church that morning, the parishioners would be most upset to see him defiling their sacred statue with his dirty feet. 

The vagrant looked at the priest and said, “I’m happy to move my feet to a more suitable place if this is too holy. To keep me from repeating this mistake in the future, could you tell me what ground is not holy?”

As the story goes, the unknown man then revealed himself to be St. Francis, and then poof — he’s gone.

There’s something about this story that reminds us of the Feast of the Ascension. In the Ascension, God in Christ claims all as holy and beloved.

This may not be obvious at first glance. When we read the story of the Ascension, we could be tempted to read it as a story of the sacred vanishing from the face of the earth. There is a way of reading Luke’s story as a sad memory of the day when God left us. 

Truth be told, there is a way of reading Luke’s entire Easter story this way. As you walk with St. Luke through the season of Easter, you begin to notice that his telling of resurrection is marked more by absence than by presence. 

On Easter morning, the women show up to the cemetery and lean in closely to see the face of God, and the only divine encounter they get is a spacious empty tomb. 

The disciples walking on the road to Emmaus walk with the risen Christ long enough to realize who he is and then, just like that, they are left with an empty seat at the table where he just was. 

And then, in the reading for Ascension Day, Jesus finally shows up to be with his disciples after the resurrection. Finally, he is filling the room with his presence, eating with them and reminding them of all the things he taught them. All of their dedication and hard work of following Jesus was finally paying off. And just when Jesus’ presence seemed to be the most sacred thing they could imagine, he leads them outside, to some spacious open fields near Bethany, blesses them and poof — he’s gone. 

Which would be the end of the story ... if Luke’s Gospel ended there. If the Ascension is the last story of the life of Jesus, it should be told from someone wearing sackcloth and ashes. 

Of course you, dear Theophilus, know that Luke’s Gospel does not end there. Rather, it flows into the Acts of the Apostles where resurrection is performed by the church in the space that has been created by the Ascension.

The Ascension of Christ does not mark God’s absence but God’s ubiquity. 

We know, this sounds like ephemeral, ethereal spirituality run amok. But the church claiming the elevated ubiquity of Christ on Ascension Sunday is not primarily a spiritual claim. This is a political claim. The church's claim that Christ is ubiquitous is over and against Caesar's claim of ubiquitous control. Caesar's bounds unravel when the church claims that Christ is elevated above; ruling all; claiming all.

Which is why the British church had the ancient practice of beating the bounds. During the days ahead of Ascension Day they would wander the boundaries of the parish, blessing the homes and the fields as they went. Reading from the Psalms and the Gospel, the perambulating priests and town officials would beat the boundary posts of the parish to mark the space cared for by this portion of Christ’s body.

Ascension is about the body of Christ beating the false bounds of this world back with the claim of Christ taking space back from the grips of death. 

From this point on, God is filling the whole world with people and practices that bring the dead back to life. That’s why the disciples rejoice at the end of Luke 24. Look at all the space God has created for the kingdom to take shape!

The Ascension is the feast where the church claims that God is still in the business of taking up space in the world through the body of Christ. From this point on, all ground is holy, all flesh is sacred, all places ripe with the potential of resurrection.

So as the feast of the Ascension comes up in our calendar, the question then becomes: how can we help our congregations embody the good news of Christ now taking up space in the world through them?

That is what we are celebrating as we mark the feast of the Ascension. We are reveling in God’s ongoing sanctifying work as Christ’s kingdom takes up more and more space in creation.

Because let’s face it, if the story ended there only with Christ’s absence, there would be no hope for the deadly boundaries being drawn against the witness of the church. Instead, we have politicians calling for walls to separate the desirable from the undesirable. We have campaign rallies filled with hate speech, state legislatures saying certain lines can’t be crossed unless you have a birth certificate proving you belong, and a growing list of dead children and refugees witnessing that some lives matter less than others and therefore don’t deserve space in our world.

Of course you, dear Theophilus, know that the story of Christ’s redeeming work doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end with an absence, where the church has nothing to say or do to resist the boundaries breaking creation apart. The story continues on as the church takes up space in the world. As the church beats the bounds, we break apart these artificial boundaries erected by hate and injustice to say that in the Ascension, space is made for all.

For this Feast of the Ascension, we offer to the church a recovered practice. Gather for a brief order of Word and Table that morning, hearing this spacious story of Christ’s Ascension and celebrating Christ’s continued presence through bread and wine. And then scatter out in the community to beat the bounds.

Break up into roving teams, ready to pray over the homes, the streets, the people, all those pieces that make up the parish. Stop to pray as you walk, remembering how the Spirit continues to make all sorts of bodies holy through the church.

Pray for the struggling single moms who need community, for the newly relocated families who are looking for a church home, for the youth who are wondering how to even begin to connect with God, or even if there is a God, for the children who are simply yearning for a place to play with friends all will find their way in because of the space God is making through you. 

Pray for all those who will find space for faith and life to grow through our church together. 

Pray for the addicts will find release from bondage.

For the sick who will be healed.

For the hungry who will be fed.

For the stranger who will be welcomed.

For the vulnerable who will be sheltered. 

Pray for all those who are yearning to find their space in God’s life.

Because that’s what happens when the body of Christ moves in the world. People wander into the void, and they hear that sacred voice call their name and echo out those sacred words, “My child, come to the place I’ve prepared just for you.” 

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