I know a fair amount of people who say they have had dreams where they can fly, and most of them speak of this experience with a twinkle in their eyes and a child-like grin of happiness. What so many gush over as a magical superhuman opportunity has never really been at the top of my list. I think my dream center knows I probably couldn't handle such things as I have only flown once in a dream that I can recall, and that could probably be more accurately described as hovering just about a foot above the ground and moving at a slow jogger's pace. When I've been asked the question, "What would your superhero ability be?" flying is never on the top of my list. For what its worth, my first choices are either teleportation or having abs without exercising.
My resistance to flying is not really related to a fear of heights. I've been skydiving and sat on cliffsides and I love a good rooftop lookout. I think I don't have a strong desire to fly because 1) my guts don't really enjoy the sensation of bumps and falls like you might get on a roller coaster; 2) I just can't seem to wrap my head around the concept of a human flying. It's interesting to think about, but our bodies aren't designed for flight; from what is observable around us, creatures that can fly have wings, and humans simply aren't equipped in that capacity; and 3) like the Tom Petty song "Learning to Fly" states, coming down is the hardest thing. It seems simple to take off but landing without crashing requires a finesse and a sense of equilibrium that I definitely don't possess.
Today in the Christian Church we commemorate the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, an act of unfathomable levitation that has been reimagined in countless stained-glass windows and renaissance paintings. Much has been made of this event because like most of the rest of the account of Jesus of Nazareth, what Jesus does here seems completely implausible and illogical. Humans can't fly. If we were to have been present at this occasion, I imagine most of us would've had similar reactions to the rest of the disciples and Jesus' followers who can't do anything but continue to stare up at the clouds where their teacher and friend had just disappeared. After all, this man who they thought was dead had recently come back to life, so perhaps they might be anticipating that Jesus would come back again after a quick trip to heaven. Jesus also told them to anticipate that God's power would soon come down from heaven upon them, so maybe they were bracing themselves for impact. Instead, two shiny, robed men show up and ask them why they're staring at the clouds when Jesus is clearly gone.
As with many of the other miracle stories or supernatural events that have been recorded about the person Jesus of Nazareth, we might spend some time imagining "what if?" or "could this really happened?", but I would venture to guess that most of us have a hard time accepting without question that these events occurred exactly as they've been portrayed in the gospels. What do we do with accounts that propose that a human body can walk on water or heal people with a touch or die and come back to life?!
This is the whole scandal of the gospel, though.
The idea that God, a force and being of unthinkable power and unimaginable presence, would willingly take on flesh and become incarnate doesn't make sense. The concept that God would relinquish authority over, and show power through vulnerability with and under, doesn't make sense. That God would exist in relationship with the marginalized of this world and demonstrate that God's kind of dominion abides with the least, the lost, and the lowest of humanity when earthly power so often sides with the powerful, the prominent, and the privileged; none of this makes sense according to patterns of humanity and systems of power that humans have established.
The beauty of this message, that seems counter-intuitive to earthly standards, is so powerful in part because it is beyond and above our comprehension. There's a bit of a mystery to it because it sounds like an unattainable good many might hope and strive for. Even more than that, the Ascension story is a celebration of this divine twist through the literal elevation of the human body.
If you are a pop culture junkie like me, or happen to have a twitter account, you probably saw many images earlier this week from the Met Gala which was held in New York on Monday evening. The theme this year was "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination," which turned out some astoundingly creative and beautiful ensembles filled with religious imagery and symbology, which for a gay guy going through seminary like myself is about as on brand is it gets. I felt as if I was, in a matter of speaking, in heaven.
Not everyone else felt this way, though, criticizing the theme as a form of cultural appropriation and sacrilege. With a little bit of investigation, critics might have seen things differently knowing the Vatican actually sponsored the event, providing many articles both for the exhibit and those attending it, viewing it as an opportunity to celebrate all the beauty that the divine has inspired in humanity, not to mention that if we wanted to avoid extreme hypocrisy, Christians would have to be honest and repent of the many ways in which the Church, in particular White European Christians, have been complicit and explicit in appropriating other cultures and even bodies of other human beings.
I wonder if part of the offense or discomfort felt by critics might have been connected to the fact that these elements and symbols representative of the divine were being worn on human bodies, and thus might be viewed as desecration or irreverence. There has, and continues to be, much shame and stigma surrounding the human body, and sadly the Christian Church and various interpretations of scripture have been the root causes of much of this perception surrounding bodies. The fashion industry and many in the entertainment industry which were heavily represented at the Gala have also fed into unhealthy and harmful ideologies surrounding bodies and expectations about appearance, so to celebrate a theme like "Heavenly Bodies" could also be critiqued as another example of how bodies have been exploited for the benefit of consumers.
What we see in the act of the Ascension stands in stark contrast to the shaming and impossible expectations humans have placed on ourselves. The story of Jesus of Nazareth that begins as a divine power which humbled itself to the point of taking on human form now celebrates this same form by not only resurrecting it to new life but elevating it to the heavens to reside among the divine realm.
To be fair, bodies are not perfect. They can fail us. Bodies can be broken, abused, violated, and refuse to reflect the identity we know to be true inside. In this, it is justified and right to lament, to call out, to feel our emotions of anger and sadness, which is also part of the human experience. In processing these emotions, we can also derive strength from our relationships with each other as we are connected to every other human body. We can gain peace through our bond with the divine in baptism when we are joined together as members of the one body of Christ and gather together in Communion with each other and God's presence offered through the broken body of Christ in the breaking of the bread.
Despite our bodies weaknesses, though, to be or abide in a body is to be alive, and this gift of life, the chance to experience creation in this form and capacity, is like nothing else. All too often, this opportunity is cut shorter than what seems to be fair, and we can lament that, too...but whether this opportunity is short or long, we get to be alive for as long as we are able, and our bodies provide the means to do this.
Before his Ascension, Jesus reminds his followers that the power of God is to soon fall upon them, a hint at the Pentecost event to come, in which the divine not only resides in *A* human form, but comes to abide in *ALL* human forms. The real and true presence of the divine resides in you, no matter the shape, form, skin tone, age, ability, or size, and in this your body does not profane the divine, but rather the divine elevates your physical form to a heavenly body, in all beauty and honor that the divine bestows. Humans may not be physically equipped to fly, but with the Spirit of the divine within us, like Jesus being lifted up and welcomed home into the clouds of the cosmos, and the clouds of the witnesses and saints that surround us all, we too are elevated to a sacred and holy status as beloved children of God, made whole, complete, and worthy of the love of the divine and each other. Amen.