Nor doth he by ascending show alone,
But first He, and He first enters the way.
John Donne, Ascension
I was puzzling over what to write here when across my Facebook newsfeed came the story of a New Englander (a “Yale grad” the headline noted) who has offered a burial plot for the Boston Marathon bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Three weeks after Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police, and with no cemetery willing to receive his remains, Douglas Keene of Vermont made the offer to Tsarnaev’s family on the condition that it be done
in memory of my mother who taught Sunday School at the Mt. Carmel Congregational Church for twenty years and taught me to ‘love thine enemy.’
It is surprising how surprising Keene’s simple, straightforward gesture seems. But it strikes me that part of its beauty is that it invites us to remember what crucifixion-resurrection-ascension make possible: the overcoming of our violence and our need to scapegoat and exclude. In Jesus’ living and dying, in his rising from death and his ascension into heaven, a new social order is opened up to us–God’s new creation–in which enemies are loved and we are free to relinquish the cherished fiction of our innocence.
The iconography of ascension makes it difficult for us to reckon fully with this “crown of all Christian festivals.” Jesus being “carried up into heaven“ (Lk. 24:51) is conceived, understandably, in spatial terms and we think absence, or at least distance. And there is the sense in the theology of crucifixion-resurrection-ascension that Jesus is not here but there: “seated at the right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:20).
But there is also the truth that in returning to the Father Jesus takes our humanity into the very heart of God. We who are his body are caught up in the divine life and its communitas of mutual gift. God’s life and love spills its bounds, so to speak, drawing us in, enfolding us, embracing us. In the ceaseless flow of such gifts we in turn embrace others.
We can imagine retaliation, we can imagine protection; but we find it awfully difficult to imagine someone . . . generously irrupting into our midst so as to set us free to enable something quite new to open for us.
This generous irruption makes possible our own ascension: “He first enters the way,” as Donne’s exquisite sonnet has it. Jesus has gone before us in our suffering, our failure, our despair, our death. And in his resurrection and ascension he brings us home to the Father so that here in this place and in this time we might bear witness to “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph.1:23).
A Vermont schoolteacher’s surprising gesture of hospitality shows us what that might look like. Embraced by God, we embrace others.