“So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you. On that day you will not question me about anything. Amen, amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you..”
For much of my life, the Feast of the Ascension was not a particularly meaningful one. It never meant much more to me than a feat of power performed for Jesus by his Father. After being raised, Jesus “stayed around” with us for a while to explain the coming of the Spirit, and then he was taken up into heaven where he had come from. As is always possible with biblical stories and teaching, I read and interpreted it quite literally, even though I tended not to do this with the scriptures as a whole. I suppose the reason for this was I had no way of identifying with this event. This was about God and Jesus as objects to me, as separate from me.
This first began to change for me as I began to be struck by the line from the account of the Ascension in Acts 1. After Jesus is taken up and the disciples are “staring into the sky,” “two men in white” speak to them: “Why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky? Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, this same Jesus will come back in the same way as you have seen him go there” (Acts 1:11).
As these words began to enter into me more fully, I realized that it was not only in his Ascension that I objectified Jesus; it was actually pretty much in every respect. In many ways, my faith, and my prayer, consisted of “staring into the sky.” Recently, several of us who have been in religious life for well over fifty years gathered for a two day meeting. In the course of our time together, we reflected on how our early religious formation was really formation in dissociation from our humanity. We developed a sense that to be “spiritual,” as we felt called to be, meant to evade, ignore, repress any aspect of our own and the world’s humanity that threatened to make life complicated. The simplicity that we unconsciously developed was not a spiritual simplicity of openness and trust, it was not “purity of heart” because in distancing from our own bodies and the human conflicts and struggles of the world we had lost contact with our heart. To do good and to be good over time became a greater value than to learn, in William Blake’s familiar terms, “to bear the beams of love.”
This particular group of us has now met several times. Each time we gather, we experience a growing willingness and capacity to truly be with each other, openly, and vulnerably. We are discovering a capacity to pay attention to and to listen to each other in a way in which we are slowly coming to know each other in ways we never have. At a moment in our conversation, one of us asked the group the question: “Do you think that if we had from the beginning of our religious lives dared to know each other and ourselves more that our lives would be different in any significant way?” Perhaps the question could be reframed to say, “If we had spent more time looking at each other and within ourselves rather than staring at the sky, how would our lives have been different?”
The Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Spirit, along, of course, with the death and resurrection of Jesus, are the fulfillment of the Incarnation. The Jesus who brings God, and so is “God with us,” in the Incarnation, now brings our humanity in all of its dimensions with him to God in the Ascension. These events in the life of Jesus are manifestations, sacraments, of the deepest meaning of our humanity. Thus, to grow in what we call the “spiritual life,” which is but the full living out of the distinctive nature of our humanity, is to become more fully alive and aware by, in the words of Rowan Williams, becoming ever “more open and more vulnerable to that great range of human experience.”
Behind the question that was raised in our meeting lies the understanding that we live our own true life and are the presence and mission to the world we are called to be only by being “open and vulnerable to that great range of human experience,” within and without. We can do lots of good things for people and for the world, but is it we ourselves who do them? And, does that make a difference?
We can have many good ideas about what we should do, about what is needed from us, about what makes for a good and successful life. We even have our own ideas about what it means to believe and to be a disciple. Yet, we are not really living unless whatever we are doing or whatever we think or believe is a living out of the call that we are and that we have been given. There is but one true way for us. Jesus says we know the way and that he is the way. We don’t discover that way, however, by staring up at the sky. We only know it at the point at which Jesus ceases to be an object to us and rather becomes our subject. “It is now no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Paul declares this after he has recognized his call, his way.
In the Ascension we see that everything that is part of human life is God’s business. This is true both within and outside of us. To have faith is to refuse to repress anything that is part of our life and world. Whatever energy we employ to repress aspects of ourselves, we are, to the same degree, repressing the truths of external reality. In the news yesterday, there was an interesting juxtaposition of two stories. In one, there were members of the British Parliament speaking about how Great Britain, Europe, and other countries needed to recognize their responsibility for setting direction in the world in the absence of responsible American leadership. In the next clip, President Trump was declaring to his supporters in a rally in Indiana that “America is respected again.” Whatever the empirical evidence, we human beings tend to see what we want or need to see. And we don’t see what we refuse to acknowledge, no matter how self-evident.
The Ascension manifests that to be close to God is to be close to our human reality, personally and globally. We cannot be distant from our own truth and expect to be able to recognize, let alone respond to, the true summons of the world to us. Somehow, when we were young religious, we absorbed the false notion that to be of service to the world was somehow in opposition to being close to other individual persons. In practice we lived a refusal of the call of our Fundamental Principles:
You will find
your love and friendship
within the community
one of the chief joys
with which God blesses you,
and a most powerful means of evangelization.
We cannot be truly open and vulnerable to the pain of the world in any way in which we can uniquely touch and heal it, if we cannot be open to the reality of the pain, and the joy, of life in ourselves and those who are closest to us. Rowan Williams says that the Ascension and Pentecost “enables us not only to be a new kind of being but to see human beings afresh and to hear them differently.” In our meeting of the past couple of days, we had, to a degree, the astounding experience of seeing and hearing people we’d known for over 50 years differently. We were awakened to the mystery of the others, and so, inescapably, to the mystery of all others in the world. To begin to see those we had merely called friends as friends is clearly the way to see the persons of the wider world world not as the object of our good-hearted service but, rather, also as friends.
God did not choose to “help” humanity out of Divine power and at a distance, but rather by being with us, not in power but in compassion, love, and service. God, in Jesus, becomes vulnerable to us because that’s what being human is. Then, in the Ascension, Jesus brings all of what and who we are into the life of God, where, Williams says, it is healed and transfigured. It is not in our power that others experience being healed and transfigured; it is in our open and vulnerable presence. There we experience the communion in God in which we are healed and transfigured in common, that is, together. So, we already live in the life of God. It is not our task to achieve this, rather it is for us to be open and vulnerable enough with each other that we can, together, come to recognize the truth of it.
[In the Ascension of Jesus] the human life in which God has made himself most visible, most tangible, is somehow absorbed into the endless life of God. When St. Paul speaks of Christ ‘filling all in all’ (Ephesians 1:15-end), we must bear in mind that picture: Jesus’ humanity taking into it all the difficult, resistant, unpleasant bits of our humanity, taking them into the heart of love where alone they can be healed and transfigured. And when in Acts (1:1-11) Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as ‘the promise of the Father’ that is going to descend on the world, he’s speaking of the way in which the gift of the Holy Spirit of God enables us not only to be a new kind of being but to see human beings afresh and to hear them differently. When the Holy Spirit sweeps over us in the wind and the flame of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gives us the life of Jesus. It gives us something of Jesus’ capacity to hear what is really being said by human beings. It gives us the courage not to screen out those bits of the human world that are difficult, unpleasant, those that are not edifying. It opens our eyes and our ears and our hearts to the full range of what being human means. So that, instead of being someone who needs to be sheltered from the rough truth of the world, the Christian is someone who should be more open and more vulnerable to that great range of human experience. . . . We recognize that [all of human life] . . . can be taken into Christ and into the heart of the Father. It can be healed. It can be transfigured.
Rowan Williams, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, pp. 109-110