May 28, 2017
Acts 1:1-11; Matthew 28:16-20
We’re always talking about Jesus. Jesus this, and Jesus that. We’re always thinking about Jesus, what he looked like, what he said. And we should. Jesus is the center of our lives. He is our lives.
But I also think that sometimes we forget about the Ascension and what it means for us as Christians: that Jesus withdrew—that he left us—that he isn’t here anymore the way he was.
And this is the good news, too. It’s very good news.
Last week Barb and I put up in a bird feeder in the side yard, one of those where you twist a pole into the ground, then put a skinnier pole in that one, then a skinnier one in that one, then hang the feeders from the top. It was morning and it was raining and suddenly I was aware of all the leaves and of the sound of the rain falling through the leaves. When the rain falls in the winter it falls straight through the bare branches, but now it was whispering in the leaves. There was a softness and a fullness to everything. I was just very happy, as we all sometimes are, very aware, and what I believe more than I believe anything is that it’s in exactly moments like this that God is speaking to us. He’s saying, I am, and this is, and you are, too.
In a way I’m not talking about the Ascension—I’m talking about Pentecost, when Jesus fills all things with the Holy Spirit, through the Church. But the Ascension is essential to that. Jesus must first leave in order to create this new space. He ascends in order to gather everything into himself and then to charge the world, charge all the universe, with his sweetness and his courage.
From now on he isn’t limited to one place and one time. He’s spread out. He’s distributed.
And even this is too linear. Jesus is what Pope Benedict called an evolutionary breakthrough, the culmination of the evolution of love, in time, but he was also present from the beginning of time and before the beginning. All things were created through him and all things continue in him. In the moment of the Big Bang, the Annunciation and the Nativity and the Passion and the Resurrection happened all at once, simultaneously, and they still are. “I am with you always,” Jesus tells us, “until the end of the age.”
I didn’t see a bearded man at the feeder and I didn’t see any birds at first either. I heard the rain.
But that’s OK, that’s fine. The Ascension is calling us to a new kind of awareness. “Though we once knew Christ according to the flesh,” St. Paul says in Second Corinthians, “we know him thus no longer” (5:16). We know him now in a deeper way.
Or as Michael Casey puts it, at the later stages of the spiritual life, “the public face of Christ fades from view, as it were, and the person is introduced into a mysterious intimacy with the Incarnate Word.”
I have to admit that sometimes in prayer I’m even blocked by the image of Jesus, or by a too literal image. Jesus is a dear, lovable man. Through him we can know God as a brother and friend. But sometimes in prayer I can’t get the faces of the actors who have played Jesus out of my mind, all the Hollywood Jesus’s, and all the paintings of Jesus down the ages. I become too specific.
I think that’s a problem for a lot us, and that’s OK. That’s fine. We can turn then to the Holy Spirit, to this in a sense more generalized idea of God, of God as no longer located anymore—or as located everywhere.
And this is Jesus, with all his warmth and personality. The Spirit proceeds from the Son, and the Son is one with the Spirit, and they are both one in the Father. All are one.
And then sometimes it all just goes blank. It just crashes.
Sometimes we wake up and everything that pleased us the day before seems irritating and gray. We snap at our spouses. It’s still raining, it’s always been raining, and all the work ahead of us seems pointless and tedious.
Chicken one day, feathers the next, my Dad always says.
And that makes me think of the really remarkable passage right after our reading in Acts today, remarkable because it’s so flat and anticlimactic. The Ascension has happened, this glorious moment in the clouds, and then the disciples just have to go back to “the upper room where they were staying,” as the scripture puts it.
That’s it. They just have to go back. The party’s over.
But that’s the other thing about the Ascension and the other way it calls us to maturity. Sometimes the space our Lord leaves us is a space we just have to live in, just a space, just an emptiness, and we have to be there, in it, endure it, do the best we can in it. The disciples are filled with joy, too, we know that, and they’re sharing everything, doing everything with one accord, but it’s not hard to imagine how hard that is. We know how hard it is: not to snap at our spouses on those rainy days, not to slack off at work.
Last month at the Shalom Center at Queen of Angels Monastery in Mount Angel I heard a sister talking about how the sisters in the convent are aging, and have decided not to accept new members, and are shutting down the retreat center and in a way letting themselves shrink, accepting the fact that they’re not going to grow.
And somebody in the group I was with asked, what’s going to happen to the Benedictine way, to that life of prayer, when the sisters are gone? And the sister said something really striking in reply. She said, we hope you will continue it. She said, it’s up to you now.
And I thought of Jesus in the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John: And now I will no longer be in the world, he says. But you will be. I thought of the angels in Acts today, asking the men of Galilee: why are you standing there, looking up at the sky?
We are very blessed in this parish to have the Saint John Society and the Society of Mary, in their youth and their fervor and their energy–and their vocations, too, are a call for us to deepen our own, in the world, in the classrooms and the courtrooms and the operating rooms and the living rooms and all the upper rooms where we work and live every day.
When in a moment we receive the Eucharist, the Lord in his flesh, we will become him. We will be clarified, and strengthened, and renewed, and then we are to go out into the world—to leave this place. “Go, therefore,” Jesus tells us.
For in the grace of the Ascension and in the grace of Pentecost, this is our great commission. This is our purpose. To be the rain and to be the leaves.
To be the body of Christ for others.
For this is who we are.