Ascension B 2012
The Feast of the Ascension strikes many Christians as a blip on the screen in comparison to the two rather bigger celebrations which announce and conclude the long and joyful season of Eastertide: Easter itself, and Pentecost. What are we to make of the story of Jesus being taken up into a cloud, an episode that not only sounds like mythology but also stretches our understanding of physical space?
Ascension Day should not be thought of as a historical commemoration. The New Testament treats the ascension as an integral part of the Easter event. For example, in the gospel of Luke it is recorded as happening on Easter Sunday evening. The Resurrection and the Ascension should not be regarded as two successive events. They are separated in order to contemplate the meaning of two aspects of a single, indivisible event.
We celebrated an Ascension Sunday last week with the prayer of blessings for Bradley. He was a part of our lives for the better part of a year, but he is gone. It is a death to what is in order to accept what might be. That he might prepare himself to become an Oblate priest, and assume greater leadership in the Church. The feast of the Ascension of Jesus to heaven is a significant moment of change, of letting go, of dying, of good-byes, accepting of a new reality.
I have found a reflection of Fr. Ron Rolheiser on the human experience of separation from others as a very interesting insight into the Ascension of Christ into heaven. We experience many painful goodbyes in life. There are so many times when someone we love has to go away, or we have to go away. There are many times when, for whatever reason, someone has to move on and irrevocably change a relationship. Almost always this is painful, sometimes so painful that it leaves us feeling restless and empty, as if all the color, energy, and joy have gone out of our lives.
But, as we know, usually this isn’t the end of the story. Most of the time, after the restless, dark heartache of a painful goodbye has worn off, we experience the opposite, a deep joy in sensing our loved one’s presence in different way.
The same is true everywhere in life. When we visit someone, it’s important that we come, it’s also important that we leave. Our leaving, painful though it is, is part of the gift of our visit.
We know the axiom: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” But physical absence, simple distance from each, without a deeper dynamic of spirit taking place beneath, ends more relationships than it deepens, or it can cause a needy restlessness clinging to a dependent connection that stifles ones growth. That’s not how the ascension deepens intimacy, presence, and blessing.
The ascension deepens intimacy by giving us precisely a new presence, a deeper, richer one, but one which can only come about if our former way of being present is taken away. Parents, for instance, experience this, often traumatically, when a child grows up, grows away, and eventually goes away to start life on his or her own. Maybe not my parents as there were eight of us. Yet even with eight I know this to be true; a real death takes place each time. An ascension has to happen; an old way of relating has to die, painful as that death is. Yet, its better that our children go away.
Every young maturing adult who has been nurtured in a loving home says by their actions, if not their words, precisely what Jesus said before his ascension: “It’s better for you that I go away. There will be sadness now, but that sadness will turn to joy” when, one day soon, you will have standing before you a wonderful adult son or daughter who is now in a position to give you the much deeper gift of his or her adulthood and bring others into your heart/ spouse, children, friends.
The heartache disappears because this loved one, now no longer a child, can offer a richer love and presence than he or she could when they were little. The pain of losing someone turns into the joy of finding something deeper in the one whom we thought we had lost. It is then that the child become the teacher of the parent; teaching the parent who is moving into years as an elder not to fear the loss of anything dear, whether employment, health or even spouse.
When Jesus was preparing his disciples for his ascension, he told them: “It is better for you that I go away! You won’t understand this now. You will grieve and have heavy hearts, but, later, this will turn to joy and you will understand why I have to do this because, unless I go away, I can’t send you my spirit.”
Fr. Ron says, “These are the unspoken words that children say to their parents when they leave home to begin lives on their own; these are the unspoken words we say to our friends when we have to move on from a certain circle of friendship to get married; and these are the unspoken words we say to each other every time we have to say a goodbye, even if it’s just to go off to work for the day: “It is better for you that I go away, even if there is sorrow now!”
The paradoxical interplay of presence and absence in love is a great mystery. We need to be present to each other physically, but we also need to be gone from each other at times.
The Ascension is about the mystery of saying goodbye, which is not really good-bye, but “see you again”. It is love’s way of being present in a way that’s deeper, purer, more permanent, and less-clinging. It is love’s way of moving beyond the tensions, disappointments, inadequacies, wounds, and betrayals that, in this lifetime, forever make intimacy a difficult challenge.
Jesus commissions the disciples to “go and proclaim the good news”. The deepest wonder of this text is not the list of wondrous signs, but that the Lord entrusts the saving message to messengers whose faith is questionable, at best. He doesn’t wait for their faith to bloom fully but sends them out so that they too might be convinced by the power of the message they carry forth. His teaching, his love, his inspiration push them forward to combat all evil.
In their obedience to Jesus, faith is born, and in the course of their mission, it will be affirmed. They are let go quite immature knowing that it is only experience that can mature. The disciples have to search within to find faith and courage. Tempted to stand and stare upward, they are called to move forward. We are called to do the same.