Ascension, Reflectionary

Collective Grieving

I belong to a Facebook group for natives of my hometown, Portsmouth, Virginia, and one of the recurring complaints shared there is the condition of the cemeteries in town. A chorus of commenters chime in to bash whichever city department they hold accountable and hark back to better, to their minds more respectful, days. But each time I remember a spring day in 1993, just after my 67-year-old mother died of metastatic melanoma. My parents had a relatively short time to grapple with her terminal diagnosis, and never having been the best at talking about emotional subjects, they had to also face their lack of a burial plan. My father hoped to be interred in a columbarium at his alma mater; he told me after she died that she had agreed to his preference, and I couldn’t prove otherwise, although it was not a special place to her. The only trouble was the columbarium was under construction. Looking for an alternative, they landed on a family mausoleum at one of those cemeteries in Portsmouth, and I can tell you that in those good old days of the 20th century, the family plot, along with the rest of Oak Grove Cemetery, was a mess, the landscape unkempt, and the gravestones on a tilt. 

Oak Grove Cemetery

We weren’t much for going to the cemetery. My mother thought it was morbid, and she thought the same about remembering the dates when people died, with the result that I have trouble placing the date of her death – the Saturday after Mother’s Day, somewhere in the middle of the teens of May – I can recall that much. 

We kept our grief to ourselves in my family, an impulse I have to battle although I know we – the collective we of humankind – need to grieve when we suffer loss. 

Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?

Acts 1:11

The disciples stood staring after Jesus, not only amazed at his supernatural departure, but, I suspect, again bereft. It feels timely, even crucial, to name their grief and give our congregations some space for mourning on this Sunday, whether we observe Ascension on Sunday or take up the overlapping Acts passage for Easter 7. It doesn’t matter that they have seen their Lord or that they trust he is safely with God the Creator, they have lost him and, in the Luke-Acts timeline, await the Spirit without having any idea what that might mean. 

In our communities, we’re also in a strange time, betwixt the old normal and the uncertain future. Whether we are grieving loss of life in our closest circles or mourning the loss of rites of passage or simply our routines, we need a place to put it, particularly if there have been deaths close to home. As Micki McElya writes for The Washington Post, our rituals of mourning serve a purpose. 

This public repertoire includes a range of official and more organic responses; it is sometimes declarative and often ambient. It is always productive — of emotions, communities and common causes.

The pandemic dead have received almost none of this, and the omission is significant — even if the dying is still just beginning. Shared grief brings people together like little else.

Almost 90,000 dead and no hint of national mourning. Are these deaths not “ours?

Those complaints in the Facebook group I mentioned above tend to ramp up at this time of year, as people prepare to take flowers to the graves of their loved ones around Memorial Day. Although I have usually kept references to the holiday to a bare minimum in worship, in the U.S. it offers an opportunity to explore our collective memory and make sure the grief of this unfolding season does not go unmentioned. 

We’re waiting, like the disciples, but without the consolation of gathering together in body. This week, let’s name our collective grief and give people a space in which to hold it together. 

I also wrote about these texts for The Christian Century’s Living By the Word and Sunday’s Coming

Abingdon, Acts 1:1-11, Ascension, Reflectionary

God in the fly space (Ascension)

The Manga Bible, by Siku
The Manga Bible, by Siku

My teenage daughter loves Manga, those Japanese graphic novels popular in this country, too. They read from back to front, and in her collection are numerous multi-volume teenage romances. But she also has a Manga Bible, illustrated by an artist, Siku, whose other work includes “Judge Dredd.” I particularly love his approach to the Acts of the Apostles, which is in many ways the adventure story of the early church.

For the adventure to begin, the leader needs to depart. And so we begin the book of Acts with our heroes grieving. They are stricken. They stand slack-jawed staring up into the sky. An amazing and wondrous and super-natural event occurred, right in front of them, but it also bereaved them, for the second time. How will they go on?

I once sat with half-a-dozen normally talkative people in a Bible study, reading the Ascension texts. They had things to say about the epistle and the gospel, but when we read the Acts passage, they fell silent. I asked a leading question. Nothing. That physical ascending hangs us up. For first-century people, it symbolized their cosmology. The divine was above, and Jesus had to get there somehow. Life was a stage, with God in the fly space. We may think we know better, but it’s still hard to reckon exactly where God is. Among the stars? In our hearts? Somewhere in between?

I decided to re-read verses 9 and 10:

“When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them” (Acts 1:9-10, NRSV).

Everyone was listening earnestly, and then I said, “Suddenly two men in white coats stood by them.”

Someone looked surprised. Someone else laughed, nervously. Seriously, if you had just seen your friend and teacher, previously dead, whisked away into the sky, wouldn’t you wonder if those guys in white were there to take you away?

Practical people don’t like this story. It strains credulity. We like our Jesus in the flesh, telling stories, walking dusty roads, eating dinner with people. We don’t like him somewhere indefinable. Yet it’s a truth of our faith that he is more than our brains can rationalize.

Jesus assured the disciples, in his last words to them, that understanding the details doesn’t matter so much. Go out and be witnesses, he says, fueled by the power of the coming Spirit. And that’s really the point of the story. It’s not about the ultimate disposition of the Resurrected body of our Lord and Savior. It’s the prelude, the overture, to the great adventure of being Christ’s Church. Don’t stand around staring up at the clouds. Get out there and share the Good News, in your words and your actions and on your blogs…and even in your graphic novels.


I’m proud to be among a great group of writers who contributed to Abingdon’s Creative Preaching Annual for 2014 (also the recently published 2015 edition as well as the forthcoming version for 2016). This is one of a series of essays of mine for the book; I’ll be posting them as they come up in the Revised Common Lectionary. You can get a paperback copy at the link above or buy the book for your Kindle here.