Thursday, May 21, 2020

On Ascension Thursday

How to explain the experience of Jesus’ after his resurrection? There is the drastic reality of his physical presence, wounds and all; he is disarmingly familiar, but there is also, mysteriously, something much more, what we might call a transformed physicality. He walks through a door, eats a piece of fish with his disciples then disappears; he suddenly shows up again wishes peace, then opens the wound in his side for Thomas to touch, andvanishes again. This coming and going happens over and over again and then after forty days, these appearances no longer occur. At this juncture the Ascension describes the event of his exaltation and enthronement as Israel’s Messiah, seated at God’s right hand; he is at last victorious Lord of the world; and he commissions his followers to act on his behalf and inaugurate this new epoch of his reign.1

It seems a bit incongruous, but I keep thinking of a scene from a Neil Simon comedy. The actress Anne Bancroft is just back from the supermarket; cradling armloads of groceries, she struggles to open the door to her apartment. Once inside her jaw drops, the place is in shambles, ransacked; drawers opened, valuables missing. A few moments later her husband played by Jack Lemmon comes in, he looks around and says, “What happened?” “We’ve been robbed,” she says. “Robbed? What do you mean?” “Robbed,” she yells, “You know, first it was ours, now it’s theirs. Robbed! Gone, disappeared.”

My brothers, we have not been robbed. Jesus has not disappeared into the ether, only to be seen again in a heaven far, faraway. Ascension is instead the great feast of intersection, interconnectedness. Jesus’ Incarnation has come full circle – the One who took our flesh in Mary now takes all of it with him into the bosom of the Father, God’s most loving desire for us is now in its ascendancy. And as the Vespers hymn expresses it, the angels, those bodiless adorers, are baffled and trembling as they see their turf invaded by our lowly humanity. “Flesh has purged what flesh had stained, and God, the flesh of God has reigned.”

What the Ascension of Jesus makes clear is that our flesh is very precious to God, this wounded, embarrassed body that we are. Jesus loves our humanity; he has embraced our flesh longing to rescue it and bring it home to his Father. Today is the festival of the future of our flesh, a sign of things to come for all of us and for all creation, a great sign of hope, for it reveals the destiny God intends for each of us. Our homeland as human beings is heaven, and the Ascension of Jesus is the first moment of our own definitive disappearance into God. In the meantime, we are not left down here left waiting and wondering. Jesus has assured us, “I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go?” His bodily departure is better for us, because, through the gift of his Spirit, he will be with us always and everywhere, not time-bound, or Palestine-bound but “always, until the end of the age.” Jesus has not gone anywhere, he’s gone everywhere.

“Heaven is not light years away, but closer to us than we are to ourselves.”2 Certainly, there is more to come, a Paradise with joy beyond telling. But as those two men in Acts insist, we often run the risk of looking in the wrong direction. Jesus is not up there somewhere. Mysteriously, wonderfully for faith-filled eyes, Jesus is seated at God’s right hand and most fully present with us here. The “withdrawal of Jesus is not so much an absence” as it is more superabundant presence3 made possible by the Spirit. We are continually being drawn more deeply into a new life of friendship with God; beckoned into a beyondness, invited into the ordinariness of Mystery, the ordinariness of incessant intimacy with Christ Jesus, at once hidden, discernible only to the eyes of faith but very, very real. This is where we live.

Jesus will be seen clearly when we act with compassion in his name and create a community of friends, where rivalry and pretension are things of the past. And even though our love may be uneven, we hope to live again with Jesus in heaven, because in reality even now in him our body is already there. We hope to find ourselves with him and with those we love, even with those we may have found it difficult to love; all of us a heaven of souls in bliss. This is imaginable if ever we have loved anyone, and we would understand it ever better if we were to love more and to believe that the kingdom of God is among us and depends on us.4

There’s a lot of talk now about what “the new normal” will be. Seems to me, what’s normal is never new but the same old astonishing reality – what’s been normal all along – that things are continually falling apart, that change is constant and inevitable, that life is, of course, fragile and precarious, always was, but that best of all, truest of all, most normal of all - God in Christ is always, always right here with us in this mess. The only place he has disappeared is into our precarious humanness now as always. In our prayer no matter how dry or desolate, in our fear no matter how overwhelming, God is with us – especially when we make the least effort to love and forgive as he does.  Jesus has not gone anywhere; he’s gone everywhere. And most especially when we are privileged to gather for this Holy Eucharist, with our hearts and voices joining those of the angels and saints, we are in heaven with him, better still, we become heaven in him.

[1] See NT Wright in The Resurrection of the Son of God.
[2] Robert Barron.
[3] Luke Johnson, Sacra Pagina: Luke.
[4] See Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things, p. 239.

Ascension in an Initial V
Niccolò di Ser Sozzo (Sienese, active 1348– died 1363)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Used with permission.