Growing up as I did in the 1960’s, my world view was pretty consistent. What I saw on TV, as I sat cross-legged in the Davin School gym as each Apollo mission took off into outer space, or splashed down after a successful mission was the same as I saw each Sunday, gazing up at the stained glass window over the altar at St. Mary’s Church. There was Jesus, blasting off into heaven, vapour trails around his ankles and awestruck or bewildered disciples kneeling, watching in amazement as this first century space mission took off into orbit. It all made perfect sense to me at the time, and I must confess, that is the image of the Ascension that first comes to mind as I ponder the mystery of the feast each year.
But we need to remind ourselves, the Ascension is not rocket science. Jesus is not some first century astronaut. We’re not looking at a space mission or vapour trails. The disciples are not the earth bound mission control team of NASSA. The Ascension is much more than that, because the Ascension as we see it in stained glass is not about some exploration of limitless space, but the reality of the limits of language.
What the disciples experienced that day, was so profound, that language and art have failed over time to convey the depths of the reality. When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. Even Paul struggles with how to convey the mystery of the Ascension when he says simply God raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.
It is easy to get lost these days, and in many ways all of us are lost. We are lost in fear, worry, concern, and anxiety. We are lost in sorry, sadness, and anger. We are afraid of the future and worried about the present. We are concerned about those we love, and anxious about ourselves.
All of these are normal and natural feelings, and I do not for a minute want to suggest that there is something wrong with you because you feel one or other, or all, or more of these things. Finding ourselves still in the midst of a pandemic after more than two years, watching the news from Buffalo, and Uvalde, and seeing our leaders incapable of doing anything that looks remotely like gun reform legislation is enough to make anyone’s stomach clench in knots in grief, pain, anger, and sadness. Seeing the images from Ukraine or the effects of the climate emergency overwhelm us with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
All of us no doubt, are actually sadder, angrier, and feel more helpless than we often care to admit. I know I do. That is the reality of life at the moment and the disorientation of this season is profound.
Ascension Day follows the high drama of Holy Week and Easter, days that are full of interpretation and significance. But Ascension Day is rather vacuous in meaning. Jesus says to his followers: Stay here. Wait. Wait until you have been clothed with power. Why the wait? Because of fear. They were still afraid.
Sixty years ago the great Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, wrote in his diary in Ascensiontide 1961: “…at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”1 As for Jesus’ disciples, just as for us: God is waiting for us to say Yes, to keep saying Yes to our own lives, which will open up this channel for God’s work within us and through us.
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Before I entered monastic life, I experienced the Ascension in both its scriptural telling and its liturgical observance a bit the same way I experienced a lay-over between flights. Why this seemingly unnecessary stop on the journey from Easter to Pentecost – and so close to our final destination? Jesus had risen. Why did he now need to go up still farther – to a Heaven I certainly believe in but did not (and do not) regard to be “up” at all? In the monastery, where scripture rains from above and seeps up from below until it gets inside you, it was clear that the Ascension meant more – much, much more than I had assumed. But it still felt like an irritant – a grain of sand that might produce a pearl – one day.
My relationship with the Ascension is now very different. I now delight to get off the Easter-to-Ascension plane, stretch my legs, and take in the breath-taking view before climbing aboard for the Ascension-to-Pentecost leg of the journey. I understand why lay-overs and way-stations are necessary on long journeys – and what they can do to shift the perspective of the traveler toward the terrain. I understand that “direct flights” in the spiritual life are available only to angels. I do not understand the Ascension, anymore than I can levitate – or fly. But I love the Ascension because I love the Ascended Christ and I sense now more than ever what his Ascension means for us here below.
Acts 1: 6 – 14
Psalm 68: 1 – 10, 33 – 36
1 Peter 4: 12 – 16, 5: 6 – 11
John 17: 1 – 11
I am not naturally inclined to poetry. It’s not something I read a great deal of. I don’t spend my time reading the great poets or memorizing poems. When I was in Grade Eleven, we were given a choice of a number of options to choose from in our English literature class. One option was Canadian Literature. The other option was poetry. I of course, signed up for the Canadian Literature section. The problem was, so too did a number of my classmates. The end result was that I, and several others, were simply reassigned to the poetry section in order to even out the class sizes. I remember distinctly that one of the assignments of this class was to write five poems during the course of the term. I wrote my first poem at the end of the first class and handed it in. I still remember it:
O God, why me?
I chose Can Lit,
But got stuck in poetry.
Ascension Day follows the high drama of Holy Week: the palm-waving crowds, the last supper among friends, the betrayals, the scourging, the crucifixion and resurrection. All of those days are full of interpretation and meaning. But Ascension Day is rather vacuous of meaning. Jesus says to his followers,“Stay here. Wait. Wait until you have been clothed with power.”Why the wait? I think God is waiting for us, for you and for me, to say Yes with our own lives: our readiness or at least our willingness to co-operate with God for what God has in mind for our own lives.Dag Hammarskjöld, the great Secretary General of the United Nations, wrote in his diary just before Pentecost in 1961: “…at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”1 Say Yes to your own life. God is waiting for us to say Yes to our own lives, which will open up this channel of God’s power at work within us and through us.
Today is the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord, Jesus Christ. What does the Bible tell us about this Feast?
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel we can read that “The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. … Then Jesus came and to them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, that I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”
(Cf. Mt. 28:16-20)