Feast of the Ascension
The poet Walt Whitman, as he looked back and narrated his own life, saw his first departure from the town of his birth as his chance to escape the past, to “strike up for the New World.” The poet Ezra Pound, in the beginning of his Cantos, imagines sailing away from home, writing, “And then went down to the ship,/Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea.”
These poets describe the common human experience of departure, the way in which it seems we are always being forced to take leave of someone or someplace, either because of death, or a new job, or growing up and moving out to go to college. Certainly, at Holy Infant, we’re no strangers to departure in our own lives but also in the life of the Church. Priests come here, fall in love with all you wonderful people, and then are stolen away to serve in other parishes where God desires us to serve. Now imagine that, instead of a humble, and let’s face it fairly replaceable priest (because the heart of the parish is actually out there in the pews), imagine that that you had Jesus Christ himself in the flesh as your priest, your teacher, your friend, everyday with you spending time with you and teaching you – and suddenly, in the blink of an eye, he’s gone.
The Ascension of Our Lord, which we celebrate today, is a miracle, but for his friends it was a painful one. In the sacred art tradition of the Church, the scene is often depicted as the disciples gathered about gazing mournfully into the sky and all that is visible is a pair of feet still hanging through the clouds. The miracle itself, the God who had risen from the dead and was now ascending bodily to heaven, this very miracle seemed to be taking him away from them.
As I contemplate my own departure from Holy Infant, I think back to the other changes in my life that have left a mark on my psyche. How, after college graduation, I left New Haven Connecticut where I’d made so many friends during a formative period of youth, knowing that as I left for the last time, there would be no going back to the place I remembered because each return would find my old friends gone and the places I had been, in a way, alienated and foreign to me. I remember how, after I converted to the Catholic faith, I quit my job as an Anglican pastor on Cape Cod and had to say goodbye to the parishioners I loved so much, sell my home, and drive away for the last time at the wheel of a rented truck full of my earthly possessions, full well knowing that I was driving away from everything that mattered.
This, at least, is how those moments feel – Each change an added scar, each departure an exodus into a strange land. Perhaps this is why Matthew tells us that, even as the disciples worshipped… they doubted. Would this Risen God who stood before them turn out to be a permanent reality in their lives, or would he vanish again into the silence of the tomb? Would he stay with them forever, or would he, too, eventually move on as all of us do to different pastures. And as they struggled with their inner turmoil, he ascended. And he was gone.
Matthew almost seems traumatized by it. He doesn’t even record it! For that, we must consult Luke’s historical book called the “Book of Acts.” Matthew, though, simply records the last words of Jesus almost as if they’re a last will and testament. To him, the loss of Jesus feels like a death.
We don’t tend to think about the Ascension in this way, but I think it’s helpful because we too struggle with these departures, these feelings that maybe God has abandoned us, doesn’t hear our prayers, or that he isn’t as real as he was to those first followers who actually saw him in the flesh.
At least partly, this feeling of departure is a longing for a permanent home, a desire for the Garden of Eden, a perfect reality where no one is left behind and God walks with us. Knowing that there is no return to the paradise of Eden, we begin to see that sin, which caused Adam and Eve to be exiled, is a sort of departure from ourselves. It alienates us from our own souls, injures our will to seek our true home, and puts us in a situation where we do bad things we don’t want to do and have trouble doing the good things that we do want to do.
Against this backdrop, we begin to glimpse the logic of the ascension. We cannot stay here. Jesus cannot stay here. This life is too marred by sin, and as we are redeemed we find that the heavenly reality connects with this one but slowly and steadily is replacing it through redemption. They somehow connect but are yet completely different (that’s my incredibly technical and precise definition of sacraments). Jesus is with us yet, as Pope St. Leo says, “Our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments.” But his presence had to be changed so that it might be perfected.
The ascension is necessary to bring us home. It allows Our Lord, from his vantage point in heaven, to be present in the hearts of all, closer to us than we even are to ourselves. Closer than he ever would have been if he had remained on earth, meaning that the Ascension might feel like a departure but it is actually an arrival. It’s the endpoint of a magnificent journey.
Pope St. Leo says, “The Son of Man was revealed as Son of God in a more perfect and transcendent way once he had entered into his Father’s glory; he now began to be indescribably more present in his divinity to those from whom he was further removed in his humanity.”
What new path is God opening up before you? What are you being called to leave behind that is holding you back? Set before yourself Our Lord’s miraculous Ascension and take hope that every change no matter how painful, every small act of death to self through Christian sacrifice, every sinful habit conquered and left behind, every halting step you take is not a step away from your youth or your memories but it is one step closer to God.
O Lord, as you ascend bring us home to you.