We're Walking in the Air

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring

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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Sunday after Ascension Day
May 21, 2023

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  (Acts 1:9)

One of the great stories of our striving metropolis was the race to the sky in 1929.  For sixteen years the Woolworth Building on lower Broadway had stood high above all others, but its reign as the world’s tallest building was just about finished.  The Bank of Manhattan Company had commissioned the architect H. Craig Severance to design their new headquarters at 40 Wall Street, and top Woolworth.  But the real challenge to Severance wasn’t Woolworth, it was Chrysler.  Four miles north at 405 Lexington Avenue, the auto magnate Walter P. Chrysler and his architect, William Van Alen were also building to the heavens.  So the race was on between Chrysler and the Bank of Manhattan to see who would ascend the highest.  The two architects, Van Alen and Severance, alternately adjusted their plans in the effort to outdo each other. 

Severance finished first, and topped off the Bank of Manhattan Building at 927 feet – 2 feet higher than the plans for the Chrysler Building.  It was the tallest building in the world, but not for long.  Chrysler and Van Alen had quite a trick up their sleeve.  Deep inside the Chrysler Building’s shimmering, stainless steel crown, Van Alen’s workers had secretly constructed a 125-foot metal spire that they would raise into place once they were certain their downtown competitors were finished.  This they did, and the Chrysler Building soared to the dizzying height of 1,046 feet, higher than any other on earth.  But the honor would be fleeting.  Less than a year later the Empire State Building would far surpass Chrysler, and wear the crown for nearly forty years. 

When I first heard the story of the Chrysler Building and the race to the sky, I thought of today.  Today is the Seventh Sunday of Easter, also known as the Sunday after Ascension Day.  The Ascension commemorates the final departure of the risen Jesus from the company of his disciples.  The Scriptures tell us that for a period of forty days after Easter the immediate companions of Jesus, and other witnesses as well, had been experiencing a series of approaches and appearances of the one they knew had died.  Jesus was alive.  To be sure, the experiences were mysterious, and on the flip side of the approaches and appearances were departures and disappearances.  Where did he come from each time he appeared, and where did he go when he departed?  At some point the vivid, tactile Easter appearances stopped, and the only conclusion that the disciples could reach was that he who came from God must finally have gone back to God.  The writer of Luke’s Gospel, who is also thought to be the author of Acts, paints a graphic picture for us of how Jesus departed for the final time and went back to God.  As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  Jesus just rose in the air until he disappeared into the sky.  The disciples gazed open-mouthed, taken by surprise.  Nobody down below believed their eyes. 

The first questions that people always ask about the Ascension are blunt and obvious: Do you expect me to believe this?  Are we talking here about literal history?  Many thoughtful Biblical scholars insist that yes, the writer of Acts was describing the scene exactly as it occurred.  What is more, other New Testament authors who were writing earlier than Acts also allude to the Ascension, giving credence to the notion that the resurrection appearances of Jesus didn’t simply peter out.  Something unique and memorable occurred on the final occasion, or no one would have written about it.  But we get stuck on the gravity thing, don’t we?  We could accept Jesus walking off into the mist, or riding off in a cloud of dust, or even disappearing into the ether.  But rising into the air?  Really?  Try as they might, some people can’t get past the scene to the real Jesus.  The manner of the Ascension obscures any meaning it might have. 

Other Biblical scholars, equally as thoughtful and faithful as those who defend the literal view, are not so insistent that we can or should nail down exactly what may have happened.  Rightly, I think, they caution against starting with the Ascension and then trying to work our way to Jesus.  Rather, we start with the experience of Jesus and then work our way to the Ascension.  Put another way, we don’t believe in Jesus because of the Ascension.  Instead, we believe in whatever truth the Ascension is trying to express because of Jesus.  So don’t let the manner of the Ascension cloud the meaning. 

We might ask: how did Luke’s account come to be?  It could be that the disciples had reflected on and talked about the resurrection appearances for years, examining each one for unique meaning.  They might have wondered especially about the last appearance and departure.  Did Jesus say anything or do anything that was a special clue to who he was, and where he was going, and what we should do?  In retrospect, realizing it was the final conversation they’d had with Jesus, perhaps they held the memory in deep awe and reverence, surrounding it with an aura of holiness.  Remember, we are talking here about the transcendent experience of being in the presence of God, and we who dwell in time and space simply don’t have the language for it.  What do we do?  We turn to art and poetry and music to express the meaning stirring within us.  Thus, the graphic description of Jesus’ taking flight. 

At the end of the day, you can make of the Ascension what you will.  As for me, I find something about it to be strangely attractive.  Something about the image of Jesus rising into the sky appeals to the heavenly aspirations that that I think we all share.  At our best we all have a desire to rise above the ordinary, to soar beyond the petty, to transcend the limitations of gravity, time, and space, to reach the heights, to race for the sky without falling back to the earth.  I hear the story of Jesus on Ascension Day and something deep within me says, “I want to do that, too!  I want to ascend.  I want to walk in the air.” 

And so it was last February, one Sunday afternoon at the annual Junior Chorister Concert here at Grace Church.  Patrick Allen had invited the legendary British choral director, Dr. Barry Rose, to work for a week with the choristers in preparation for the concert.  Sitting in my pew, I noticed a piece coming up in the program that I didn’t recognize.  Thankfully, Dr. Rose enjoys giving commentary on the selections before the choristers sing them, so I would soon learn about the piece in question.  He explained that forty years ago, when he was the Choirmaster of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the BBC approached him for help with an animated Christmas show they were producing called, The Snowman.  The gist of the show would be that a little boy awakes one morning and delights to see that it snowed through the night.  He goes outside and builds a snowman which, like Frosty, comes to life.  They play together, until eventually the snowman gathers up the child in its arms and they take flight across the English countryside.  As they fly, viewers would hear the only spoken words in the whole 25-minute cartoon.  The boy would sing a hauntingly beautiful song called, “We’re Walking in the Air.”  It was for help in finding just the right chorister to record the song that the BBC had turned to Dr. Rose. 

At the concert here in February, one of our choristers, Luca Viola, sang the song so well that I was transfixed.  When I heard the music and read the lyrics I thought of today, Ascension Sunday.  I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun and fitting to hear, We’re Walking in the Air on Ascension Sunday?”  I put the idea to Dr. Allen, and he agreed.  Today we’ll hear the whole Junior Choir sing it as the Offertory Anthem.  It’s a crossover piece from the secular to the sacred.  Some of the lyrics, especially the line “I’m finding I can fly so high above with you,” suggest to me how the disciples must have felt in the presence of Jesus. 

In today’s densely packed reading from the Gospel of John (17:1-11), Jesus looked up to heaven, and he prayed that we all might be one with God.  He prayed that we all might be lifted up to the presence of God.  Far from thinking that our yearning to ascend is a ridiculous notion, Jesus baptized it as a holy desire.  Also, you may recall that in the reading from John we heard two weeks ago (14:1-14) Jesus said to his disciples, “I go to prepare a place for you.  And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”  He goes, yes, but with the promise to return and gather up our spirits to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 

Some theologians speculate that Jesus’ going away was essential to the growing up of the disciples and the church.  In the same way that a parent must eventually stand back and not hover so that a child can grow and mature, so did Jesus need to withdraw from the disciples.  Think about it: stepping back can actually be an act of creation.  Perhaps God created the universe by stepping back from it, and thus making space for all being and existence.  You see, God has a purpose for the universe, and Jesus has a purpose for his disciples – then and now.  We are to be his witnesses to the far reaches of the earth.  He gives us space to grow and mature, to strive and succeed and fail.  Yes, failure and frustration are part of it, as is suffering.  For now, the Christian calling is not to be lifted out of the world’s pain, but rather to share in Christ’s sufferings.  As Peter wrote in the portion of the letter we heard today (1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11): Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.  The time will come for our spirits to soar, to walk in the air. 

Here in New York City, the race to the sky has continued.  Today, the highest outdoor observation platform in the western hemisphere is called The Edge, near the top of a new building at 30 Hudson Yards.  Last week my son, Luke, and I decided we had to go see it.  After plunking down a small fortune for the tickets and riding a high speed elevator, we soon found ourselves over eleven-hundred feet in the air.  The glass walls angle outward so that you can lean over and look down at Madison Square Garden 100-stories below.  Let me tell you, I would not be taking the hand of any snowman offering me a ride on the other side of that wall!  Even more dizzying, The Edge offers a special feature, not for the weak of stomach.  You can step onto a clear glass floor and look at your feet as if you were walking in the air.  You know that it’s safe, but I must tell you, I had a lump in my throat as I edged my way out.  It is an incredibly strange, unnerving, unnatural feeling.  I don’t have the language to describe the experience.  What is one to do in such moments?  Of course, I took out my phone and snapped a picture of my feet suspended in mid-air, dangling over the city streets. 

As I stood there, seemingly floating on air, what eventually came to mind was today.  Today is the Seventh Sunday of Easter, otherwise known as the Sunday after Ascension Day.  I looked at my feet and it occurred to me that if one were to take the literal view of Jesus’ ascension, and if one could imagine Jesus himself taking a photo of his sandaled feet, hanging over not New York City, but Jerusalem, this is what he would have seen.  I enjoy the photo as an amusing, if not crude foretaste of God’s desire for us – a reminder that our destiny as children of God is to soar.  It is to rise.  It is to find our heaven of heavens in Jesus, and be with him where he has gone. 

The Prophet Isaiah (40:31) said it like this: But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.  Indeed, they shall sing, “we’re walking in the air.”