Ascensiontide always reminds me of a story my mom loved to tell about my first trip on an airplane when I was six years old. I was so excited because I got to sit near the window, the best place to witness our ascension into the sky. As we rose to our cruising altitude above the big, fluffy clouds I turned to my mom, wide-eyed, and asked, “Mama, are we in heaven?” This is not surprising, considering that every illustration I had seen of Jesus’ ascension heavenward had Him standing on a pillow of clouds. To this day the beauty, serenity, and peace of flying above the clouds is ‘heavenly’ in my mind’s eye.
But if I’m honest, my childish understanding of heaven has always made Jesus seem far away. While flying above the clouds seems like a heavenly realm to a small child, technically it is only six and half to seven miles above the earth; a walkable distance here on the ground. Conversely, heaven seems so distant, otherworldly, and infinite to our finite minds. In the Collect for Ascension Day, we pray for the awareness of Jesus fully present to us now and always: “Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.”
Perceiving that Christ abides with his Church on earth is not easy in our COVID-19 world. It seems that in a blink of an eye our world changed. This pandemic has forced us to take cover, to distance ourselves from friends and family. It has shut us out of our places of worship, and thrust us into economic uncertainty. It has revealed weaknesses in our systems of care that have led to even more deaths. There are clear signs of racial and economic inequality, and tension between those who favor restarting the economy as soon as possible, and those who want to be more cautious. Two and a half months into our isolation, we worry about a second wave of the virus. Some of us are restless; all of us are eager to get beyond this. We might identify with the Psalmist as he cries, “How long, O Lord? How long will I have perplexity in my mind and grief in my heart, day after day?”
This is why we pray for faith to perceive Jesus’ abiding presence with us. We have faith in God’s Incarnation: that God entered our human experience in the person of Jesus, and that he lived among us announcing the arrival of God’s reign. We have faith that he died a bodily death, and experienced the resurrection of his body. We have faith that Jesus, both divine and human, had a bodily ascension into heaven. Yet the perplexities of this pandemic might seem like clouds veiling our perception of God Emmanuel (that is “God with us”). We gaze up and down, left and right, wondering, “Where in the world is God in all of this?”
Our founder Richard Meux Benson once wrote, “We cannot have an abiding faith in the Incarnation unless we recognize consequences in ourselves proportionate, and nothing can be proportionate to God becoming flesh short of the great mystery of ourselves becoming one with God as His children.”
When Jesus ascended into heaven, he brought our humanity into the heart of God, and made heaven present to us here on earth. When we make the decision to put our love, faith, and hope in Jesus, we are infused with the Holy Spirit, who teaches us what we need to know and reminds us of Jesus’ promise: I will not leave you orphaned. Jesus abides in the tabernacle of our hearts making heaven present to us, speaking a word of heavenly serenity, peace, and calm in the midst of the storms of life.
One of my favorite hymns in the Hymnal 1982 (#669) begins this way:
Commit thou all that grieves thee and fills thy heart with care
To him whose faithful mercy the skies above declare,
Who gives the winds their courses, who points the clouds their way;
‘tis he will guide thy footsteps and be thy staff and stay.
These faithful words of counsel help me to rise above the perplexing clouds that seemingly veil my eyes from God’s presence. The Holy Spirit strengthens our faith to know that Jesus is born in our hearts, that He bears us up to heaven, and that He abides in the tabernacle of our hearts forever. So, “Children of God, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Heaven begins within you and Jesus abides with you there!
Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE