Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
What a great ending to his story, as Luke tells us Jesus’ last journey began at Bethany and ended in heaven. Why Bethany? Clearly, a special place for Jesus, it is thought a community of Galilee folk lived there, home from home for Jesus, as they spoke his dialect, and shared stories of the north. Bethany has been identified as a centre for healing, sufficient distance from the ‘holy’ city – Simon the Leper lived there. How closely Jesus identified with people struggling with ill-health and handicap, with the terrible poverty and exclusion this caused. An Essene hospice was in Bethany, the last place to rest for pilgrims on their way to the temple, just as Jesus rested there. Profoundly, from Bethany Jesus began his last entry into Jerusalem, so now, his return marks a redemption of that journey of sacrifice and death to hell itself, into a journey of freedom and joy to heaven itself.
One last connection – Jesus’ friends lived there, Mary, Martha, Lazarus. I see him looking from a distance at their home, just making sure they were well, before he left this final time. Like many, I struggle with goodbyes, which only become good experiences, when I know those I am leaving will be well, and they can let me go, knowing we are safe in God’s hands. A helpful description of heaven, knowing all is well because we are all safe in the hands of God, hands that ‘flung stars into space to cruel nails surrendered’ (Kendrick). At Ascension they come together in Jesus, human, divine, earth and heaven. Luke began his story with everyone praising God, young and old, shepherds and angels! No wonder the story ends with everyone invited to join the praise! But Luke will write again, for what goes up must come down – God has not deserted us, the Holy Spirit is coming!
Lord Jesus, we praise you for your journey into the fullness of God, shares God’s presence with us all; your humanity and divinity are one, shares that closeness to God with us all; your being set free from the struggle of human life shares that peace and love with us all. For you promised – “Lo! I am with you always even to the very end of time.”
The Rev’d Kevin Watson, Moderator of the Yorkshire Synod
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