It was this view of the Ascension that greeted me from the Gothic High Altar in my home congregation in rural Nebraska.
For as long as I can remember going to church, it was this picture of Jesus floating up out of the midst of the disciples that occupied the central image of my faith.
Jesus floated there amidst evergreen boughs and Advent wreathes at Christmas.
Jesus floated there amidst corn husks and cornucopias in the harvest season and mission festivals of the fall.
Jesus floated there through the days of Lent, when the flower vases were removed and the somber tones of purple and black bedecked the altar.
Jesus floated there surrounded by Easter Lilies in the springtime, and ascended flanked by the seasonal flowers from member’s gardens throughout the summer —Lilacs and gladiola and Peonies and coneflowers.
The Ascension was always there, always a part of every season, and every celebration. It provided the backdrop for baptisms and confirmations, for weddings and funerals, for anniversaries and annual meetings, for Sunday School programs and Bible School openings.
I don’t recall anyone ever telling me why this particular biblical scene was chosen for the high altar.
With our own Arts in Ministry Committee investigating a visual centerpiece for the Narthex, I got more and more curious as to how this subject was chosen for my home congregation and where the painting came from.
So I checked with my home congregation’s resident historian, and this is what she sent me. It is a reminiscence from Sophie Stubbendieck, a long time member, hand written as a note for the history.
“Fritz Antweiler painted the ascension in the church the year the church & parsonage was built. (1923) I still remember him having the painting hanging on our dining room wall and he painting every day on it.
He was my stepfather…I didn’t care for him much but I have to give him credit for being an artist. He could(‘ve) really been someone if it would(n’t) have been for (the) liquor. (sic.)
My jaw dropped as I read that.
The centerpiece of my worship life all those years was painted by a drunk, maybe even someone who was abusive.
There was no hint as to why this particular subject matter was chosen, only the sparse information about the artist. One might therefore assume that the artist had a pretty free hand in what he chose to paint. I can well imagine that someone from the church said, “Fritz, could you paint something from the bible for that altar.”
I thought about all the people in 1923 who must have known Fritz.
They must have known about Fritz Antweiler’s, giftedness.
They most surely also knew about his obvious shortcomings and struggles.
And yet, he was still accepted as a part of the community and tapped for this task. His obvious talents were celebrated. What surely must have been his sometimes unsteady hands were trusted to do great things.
Not only did he paint the picture for the Altar at my home congregation, but you can find Fritz Antweiler religious paintings in other church structures in surrounding communities.
Oh, and the history noted that he also painted the parsonage.
Painting houses was his trade.
Working in oils and portraiture was his creative outlet, when he wasn’t drinking, evidently.
Finding all this out just curiously made the altar painting all the more meaningful to me, because in a peculiar way this is what the Ascension is all about
The Jesus we experience is one who somehow continues to float just out of our reach.
There is the promise of Jesus to be with us always, but the way that Jesus is with us now after the Ascension is different than the way those first disciples experienced Jesus’ presence.
He is present now in bread, wine and water, as he promised.
He is present where two or three are gathered, as he promised.
And yet, he is just out of reach of clinging to, or holding on to, or deferring to.
This is how it is for us. Jesus floats over the seasons and the events of our lives, a presence, felt and trusted.
But Jesus’ presence is not one to which we can just defer, just say, “you take it from here, Jesus.”
Not, it is rather the other way around.
The Jesus who floats and broods over us in the Spirit looks at us in love and says, “you take it from here.”
You make disciples of all nations.
You baptize in my name.
You forgive in my name.
You be my witnesses to Judea, and Samaria and the ends of the earth.
You heal, and love, and gather, and feed, and do greater things in my name because I have ascended, “I have gone to the Father.”
I looked at the painting again, and I thought of Fritz Antweiler’s sometimes unsteady hands after a few too many drinks, and I marveled at the kind of trust that the community had in an imperfect artist.
I look over my own life, and how often I have undertaken the work that God lays before me with my own unsteady hands.
I’m sure you may have done the same.
Hands that are unsteady because we are unsure of just how to proceed.
Hands that are unsteady sometimes because of a variety of our own “impairments.”
Hands that are unsteady because of our lack of trust, or an attitude of being drunk on power or perhaps over-confident in our own abilities and not looking to Jesus.
An unsteady hand in dealing with others because of our own too willing readiness to accuse or point out wrong rather than to love and to forgive.
How unsteady we must look to Jesus.
Not too sure about how to share, how to witness, how to respond to someone when they come to us in grief or sorrow or with a heavy heart.
I look over my life, and marvel at the kind of trust that God and the church has in imperfect pastors, and imperfect disciples.
God seems to place incredible trust in imperfect disciples, whose work in this world is sometimes a thing of wonder and sometimes an ever-loving mess.
How is it that God could do that? Stay above it all?
God is able to do that because of the particular promise made in the midst of the ascension.
“See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised;” Jesus says, “so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
“Clothed with power from on high.” That’s the kind of promise that steadies the hands of a housepainter and gives them the ability to do a work of art that transcends generations.
“Clothed with power from on high.” That’s the kind of promise that takes the unsteady hands of our service, of our prayers, of our witness and turns it into a witness and impact that reaches far beyond our own abilities.
The Ascension gives us a picture of Jesus floating above the events of this world, perhaps just out of reach, but it’s also the story that reminds us that we’ve been clothed in power to do the work we are called to do in this world, given all we need to be Christ’s hands and feet and presence.
Clothed in power from on high, we look toward Jesus.
Clothed in power from on high, we put our unsteady hands to the wheel of history and feel the Savior’s hands come upon our own to guide and empower the actions.
Clothed in power from on high, that’s what we are today, and Jesus floats above it all, everything we do, every word we speak, every action that we take.
That’s the Ascension and what it does for us.
And so I say, “Thanks Fritz”, for giving me a picture of that, a picture of the presence of Jesus hovering over my whole life.