By Micah Kiel
Several weeks ago I took a quick weekend trip to New York City to visit some friends. My wife and I used to live out East while in graduate school, and we often visited New York and took the subway all over the place.
The New York subway is one of the most amazing cultural endeavors any human being can experience. People from every background, race, religion, shape, and odor cram together in little metal boxes hurling through the dark. The subway is very communal. It was common to make eye contact with other people.
This time, something seemed different. After my second transfer, I realized what it was. Everybody was looking down, their eyes buried in some type of smart phone or other random mobile device. There is a famous phrase in the Psalms, “I will lift up my eyes from whence cometh my help.” On this trip on the subway, I couldn’t help but revise that line to, “I will avert my gaze downward from whence cometh my text messages.” You don’t have to go to the New York subway to notice people staring downwards. The same is probably true at the farmer’s market, a River Bandits game, the hallways at Bettendorf High School, and, most terrifyingly, on the freeway.
Just to be clear, I am not a luddite. I consume and love technology in many ways. I have an iPod that I use every day when I walk to work. But people’s physical dispositions — the angle of their necks with reference to the floor and other people — drastically changed the subway experience. It matters where we fix our gaze.
As a Scripture scholar, these reflections lead me quickly to think about the story of the ascension from Luke’s writings in the New Testament. Scholars are pretty sure that the author of the Gospel of Luke is the same author as the Acts of the Apostles. This one person wrote two volumes, comprising over one-quarter of the whole New Testament. Luke actually narrates Jesus’ ascension twice — first, at the end of his Gospel, and then again at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles.
Luke seems most interested in giving us a clear picture of what Jesus’ ascension is NOT supposed to mean. At the beginning of Acts, he recaps what he had already narrated at the end of his Gospel, actually expanding the account and adding details not previously included. The imagery is vivid. Jesus floats up into the air, and a multitude of people are gathered on the ground, gaping up at the sky. The angelic response puts a divine critique on their physical disposition: “Why are you standing there looking up at the sky?” (Acts 1:10). Luke’s interpretation of this event suggests that our job as followers of Jesus is not simply to be reverent, to stare at the sky. It matters where we fix our gaze.
It’s important to note that this message from Luke actually fits rather well the overall aim of his writings. Luke’s Gospel is generally known as the “social justice” Gospel. Throughout his narrative of Jesus, and the early Church, he focuses on the lowly, the outcast, and the poor more than the other Gospels. It is only Luke’s Gospel in which Mary’s song, the magnificat, praises God for lifting up the lowly and sending the rich away empty. Only Luke’s Gospel includes details of women supporting Jesus’ ministry out of their own means. Only in Luke’s Gospel do we get the parable of the good Samaritan. The Acts of the Apostles is the text that tells us stories about how the early Church shared all of its possessions in common. Luke, it seems, does not want people simply to be standing around, staring up at the sky, waiting for Jesus to come back.
Instead, the Church is to roll up its sleeves and get to work, just as Jesus did during his ministry, work that entails outreach to the oppressed and breaking of societal and religious boundaries. It’s the kind of work that doesn’t have a happy ending. Jesus meets disaster for the things he did. In the Acts of the Apostles, the career of Paul follows a very similar trajectory.
Although this reflection has focused on the ascension, now is a good time to think about where we set our gaze. Jesus didn’t stand around staring at the sky. Neither should we. The incarnation tells us many things, one of which is that God decided to be among humanity.
As a result, the Church’s gaze should be focused horizontally, at the world around us. A horizontal gaze, like the one I missed from the subway, forces us to see other people, and creates community. Looking up or down helps no one but our individual selves. It matters where we set our gaze.
(Micah Kiel is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)