Approximately two decades before the birth of Christ, one of the greatest poets of the Latin language retold the story of Orpheus and his journey to the underworld to recover his dead wife, Eurydice. The poet is known by the name Virgil, and the story is found in The Georgics. Virgil was not the first poet to compose stories about Orpheus, but his version of this tragic story is the best known and forms the basis for most of the retellings that followed.
In the story, Orpheus is presented as a poet and musician without peer. He plays upon a lyre presented to him by none other than the god of light, music and the arts – Apollo himself. He marries Eurydice, but she dies an untimely death shortly after their wedding. In his grief, Orpheus creates music so sorrowful that all living things and every deity are moved by its power. He finds a pathway to the land of the dead through a deep cavern, and follows it until he comes to the god of the underworld, Hades, and his wife, Persephone.
Orpheus’ music moves Hades and Persephone to tears, and they agree to allow Eurydice to leave with Orpheus on one condition – that he walk in front of her on the path leading back to the waking world of mortals, and that he not look back until both of them were in the land of the living.
So they set off, Orpheus leading the way and Eurydice following behind him. But as he makes his journey from death into life he is filled with fear and anxieties. Why has he been told not to look back? What if Eurydice is not behind him? What if the gods have tricked him? Should he trust them or not?
Still, he persists. He continues his journey from a land filled with shades of the past to the sunlit land of the living and, just as he feels the first warm rays of light on his face, he is filled with such a desire to see his bride that he turns around to look at her once again before she has emerged from the underworld. Then, Virgil writes:
In that instant, all his effort was wasted, and his pact
with the cruel tyrant was broken, and three times a crash
was heard by the waters of Avernus. ‘Orpheus,’ she cried,
‘what madness has destroyed my wretched self, and you?
See, the cruel Fates recall me, and sleep hides my swimming eyes,
Farewell, now: I am taken, wrapped round by vast night,
stretching out to you, alas, hands no longer yours.’
She spoke, and suddenly fled, far from his eyes,
like smoke vanishing in thin air, and never saw him more,
though he grasped in vain at shadows, and longed
to speak further…
That story, that myth, of divine instruction to keep our eyes fixed forward as we journey out of death into life, would have been circulating in the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament when the author of Luke and Acts told his story of the post-resurrection Christ appearing to his disciples before ascending to heaven. In fact, in the first centuries of the early church, Christ was sometimes pictured as Orpheus. We have found images of Christ as Orpheus in Roman catacombs dating back to the fourth century. The correspondence isn’t hard to understand: both figures were understood as sons of God, both descended to the land of the dead and emerged again, both suffered violent deaths (Orpheus was believed to have been attacked and dismembered by female followers of the god Dionysus).
Then there is this: the story from Acts that we hear this morning. It is told in the last chapter of Luke, then again in the first chapter of Acts. Jesus appears to the disciples after his death and resurrection before ascending to heaven. Jesus, who in life was a teacher and rabbi to his followers, had inspired hope in the colonized people of Israel that Roman rule was coming to an end and the dynasty of King David would finally be restored. When Jesus entered Jerusalem in the days before his death many of his disciples hoped that he would be the one to restore the kingdom to Israel. Those hopes died along with Jesus on the cross.
But then the tomb was found empty. Then Jesus began to appear to his friends – first the women who’d stayed with him at the cross, then the travelers on their way to Emmaus, then to the eleven remaining apostles in Jerusalem. The expectation of certain death was transformed into hope for continued life. The teacher had defied the power of death, and the apostles asked the obvious question, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Having seen with their own eyes that Jesus had returned from the underworld, the disciples looked back to the era in Israel’s history when they ruled their own land, when they did not have to suffer the presence of outsiders in their space. With the evidence of God’s power over the mightiest of enemies – death – the apostles hoped that Christ Jesus would finally lead them back to their collective glory days when David’s line was on the throne and they were subjects of no ruler but their own.
Instead Jesus replies, “it is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The apostles hoped that Jesus would not only return them to a period of self-rule, but a period of safe borders. Instead he recruits his followers into a mission that will send them out beyond the boundaries of the known, the familiar, the comfortable and into places where they will be strangers in strange lands.
Jesus improves upon the myth of Orpheus by learning what Orpheus could not: that the way from death to new life does not allow us to look back, only forward. It is not the first time scripture has presented this lesson. As early as the 19th chapter of Genesis we hear the story of Lot and his family escaping from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Lot’s wife turns back to look at the city, the place where her life had been lived in the past, and is turned to a pillar of salt (Gen 19:12-29). Even in the gospel of Luke, early on in his teaching ministry, Jesus tells someone he meets along the way to follow him and the person replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus replies, “let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59-60).
Jesus death, resurrection and ascension are radical actions on the part of God. When Christians say the heart of their faith is a crucified God, risen and set loose upon the world, they proclaim that God is doing something unprecedented in human history. How ironic then, that the apostles – and so often we ourselves – imagine that God is invested in returning our world, our church, our lives to some memory of the past. God, whose name given to Moses at the burning bush is both
“I AM WHO I AM” and “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE,” who declares “This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations” (Gen 3:14-15), claims the identity of one who is eternally becoming, immutably changing, always already and not yet. Not going backward, but only forward.
This is so difficult for any of us to understand, much less to live. We, like Orpheus, feel the first rays of sunshine on our faces after long nights walking in the dark, and we hope that it is a sign that things are finally going back to normal. But Jesus says there is no going back. Jesus promises his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit which will be poured out at Pentecost, and then ascends into the heavens. The disciples stand, looking up, waiting for Christ to return and God’s messengers ask them, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Which is to say, quite unexpectedly. Quite apart from what you ever imagined would happen. Inexplicably.
In my own life I have lived through those dark periods where it felt like I was crawling back from the grave of some relationship, some hoped for future that never came to pass. Emerging on the other side of those expectations, feeling the sunshine of depression lifting, it was so easy to think that perhaps, just perhaps, I could go back to the past I’d been dreaming of. But new life for me lay in the future, not the past.
It’s the same for the church. We can look back and remember a time when it was assumed that our friends and neighbors all belonged to some church, when our pews were full and our futures seemed secure. We know now that across the board church membership is declining, that the problems we are facing as a congregation are the problems facing the church at large. And yet, as we experience a renaissance here at St. Luke’s – a revival in worship, mission and ministry – we might be tempted to think that we’re finally in a position to rebuild what we once had.
That is not the path for us. Our road leads forward, not back. Our eyes must be fixed on the future, not the golden days of the past – and not up at heaven, waiting for Jesus to ride in on the clouds to set things right for us. Jesus says, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…” We will receive power. We will be witnesses. God is calling us into God’s unfolding future. We are who we are, and we will be who we will be. Always, already becoming.
The ascension of our Lord prepares us for the Pentecost yet to come. We will have time to think about this in more detail next week when Pentecost finally arrives, but for now it is enough to say that the Holy Spirit is constantly being poured out upon creation and humanity – but that we are not prepared to receive it as long as we are looking over our shoulders at where God used to be – in our lives, in our communities. We will be open to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives and institutions when we can trust that God has a plan for the future, that this plan includes us, and that it will call us into ways of being that we have not yet imagined. God’s new life is in front of us.