O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. —Collect for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
One of the graces of this season spent in quarantine has been the lectionary’s course of readings through St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. The narrative is at once dense and frenetic, while also a source of great comfort. We read of disciples not so different from you and me. People who faced gargantuan challenges and struggled with the solid weight of human poverty, weakness, and finitude—of going to bed each night completely and helplessly ignorant of any of the possibilities that God might give with the sun’s rise. I can only fantasize about the tenor of the prayers that Jesus’ little community must have prayed in the days between Ascension and Pentecost.
We know the rest of the story, and perhaps that can tempt us to presumption. It is easy for us to overlook the yawning jaws of despair that likely followed at the heels of Jesus’ followers after his ascension, hungry for their fear. Tempting them to rely on themselves. Begging them to deny God’s faithfulness. Yes, we know the rest of the story, but even the gift of hindsight is just that, a gift. Yes, we know that in a week’s time God’s faithfulness—however providentially awkward—will be attested by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. A faithfulness, which will change the course of history. Yet I cannot help but wonder what the followers of Jesus must have made of God’s faithfulness during that strange, silent hinge between Ascension and Pentecost.
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.
Sing to the Lord a new song. The Psalmist exhorts us to sing a song we’ve never sung before. Certainly, it may come to us in fragments—a gesture here, a motif there—and sometimes (if we’re feeling particularly confident) we may even begin to think we know how this strange new air goes. Yet this isn’t a song we or the world are used to hearing, and we may often feel ill-trained to sing it; but that’s probably because we are.
As the ear of our prayer adjusts in the fullness of time, we begin to realize that this new song, from our vantage, requires a kind of virtuosity for which we alone lack the dexterity of heart; and we realize we will not learn this song on our own. And still, there comes also a sense, somewhere deep within noisy mystery of ourselves, that we have known this strange song we’ve never sung before.
Sing to the Lord a new song.
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)