Ascension, in my experience, is a not so well-known / not so beloved Christian feast.
There is something puzzling about this feast. Well, Easter is puzzling all right but we know what it’s about and what it means for us, Jesus bringing us the hope of victory over death.
Ascension: Resurrected Christ lifted up towards heavens…What does it mean for us? What does it have to do with my life? Most of our lives aren’t about ascending, right? Most of our lives are kind of weighty maybe with actual extra pounds but mostly weighty with health problems, age, worries about finances, jobs, family…The list seems unending of what binds us to our down to earth preoccupations, especially in this time of global crisis.
Yet in the midst of that, today we celebrate Ascension Sunday (Ascension was actually on Thursday, 40 days after Easter)
And so today, I want to say three things about what Ascension could mean for us. I want to talk about Glory, about Joy and about Power – 3 main themes in our readings today.
1 – About Glory
Ascension is first of all about Christ’s glory. Easter to Ascension: 40 days, a period that is still an in between time of Jesus “hanging around” showing himself to the disciples, continuing the teaching (In Luke, explaining the meaning of the Scriptures). On Ascension Day, Jesus is reunited with the Father “sitting at the right hand of the Father” (Nicene Creed)
“Sitting at the right hand of the Father” is an image / like our psalm today “He subdues the peoples under us and the nations under our feet”. Jesus ascending, often represented in paintings with his feet hanging in the air, is “lifted up” that’s what it means: Not so much an actual “lifting up” in a “heavenly elevator”, it means that Christ is given all authority, the earth is his footstool (and expression that is used a lot in the Bible). “Having the world at your feet” is an expression of kingship.
It’s an image important for us to remember, especially in times of suffering. Growing up as a Catholic, I was often taught that in times of suffering, you need to remember the cross. That’s right, but come to think about it, it’s been more helpful to me to remember the cross when everything is fine in my life and I start to become a little to self assured, arrogant, forgetful of others, selfish. But in times of suffering, when we feel crushed, I think it is important to be reminded of glory. That Christ has ultimate authority, not so much that he controls everything but that he will have the last word, a word of forgiveness, resurrection and blessing (as in our Gospel of today) Through his flesh, our flesh (=human life) (and, in my mind, all flesh, all creation) is sanctified and manifest also his glory. We can see ourselves as beautiful and significant. Beyond all the sufferings and humiliations (of the cross/of our lives) there is this beauty and majesty that comes from God, beauty and majesty that cannot be destroyed and will shine forth in the end.
And it’s not only something that brings us comfort, it is an ethical way of living, to be able see others and to be able to see creation as glorious / the footstool of Christ glory. Not seeing this glory in each other and in each creature is cynicism, nihilism (= seeing void in everything) and it’s the root of all evils: social injustices, racism, abusive relationships, animal cruelty, pollution and so on.
2 – About Joy
Seeing glory/majesty/beauty/ significance in ourselves and in others, even / especially in times of suffering, can enable us to feel joy even if it appears “out of context”.
Indeed, there is something surprising in our Gospel about Jesus leaving and then the disciples being left full of joy and praising God. It’s a very different experience of loss than the usual grief/ sadness/despair or even trauma. The disciples experienced trauma at Jesus’s death because it didn’t make any sense at all – but now Jesus explains the meaning of his life, of Scriptures, of every human life – and the meaning is to be reunited to God beyond suffering and death.
I heard once that human beings are actually more looking for meaning than looking for happiness. To me, I think that when we have meaning, we can experience joy even if circumstances are tough. Sometimes, Christian are too quick to assign (specific) meaning to (difficult) circumstances, and it makes it even more difficult (we hear a lot of horrible things today about the meaning of this pandemic). To me it’s enough to believe that, if we are willing, God will use all circumstances to conform our lives to Christ and to give birth to our glorious, beautiful, eternal selves. Meaning is different for each one of us, as individuals but also as communities. The common feature it that when meaning is present, there is joy (if happiness is not always possible). Jesus used the example of a woman giving birth: Sufferings are quickly forgotten and leave room for joy when her child is born, she understands that her sufferings has led to something incredible. In the same way, Jesus assures us that our sufferings are not in vain so we can find joy inside of us knowing that.
We often see joy as coming from the world, from people around us, from events, but you cannot receive joy in anything if you don’t have an ability to receive joy inside of you (and you know that there are people who are never happy, never satisfied!) Joy may not be to be found inside of us like a “thing” placed there, but the ability to be joyful surely is surely inside of us, as surely as we have the ability to talk, laugh and sing– believing (knowing!) that we are enough, beautiful, worthy of love, discovering not only that life has meaning but that we mean something (to someone) is the key to receive the joy that life brings to us / the joy we can build in this life. The source of joy is inside of us, and we can praise God for that, because indeed God made all things beautiful and worthy of love. Only our “brokenness” “breaks” this vision, but Jesus assures us that forgiveness is given and it frees us to receive joy.
3 – About Power
The joy we receive from our lives in Christ will bring us Power. All our readings today are about power, and not only God’s power, but the promise that we will be made powerful.
Interesting to notice b/c we often think of Christian life as renouncing power. But real power is not control, coercion, or even persuasion. We are called to renounce control, coercion and even persuasion (in my opinion!), but we are not to renounce power. God wants us powerful. Power is freedom to exercise our own abilities that are the gifts of the Holy Spirit (and we’ll talk about that next Sunday for Pentecost). Power is the ability we are given to be our best selves and let shine forth the glory of God that is inside of us / to see glory in others.
It’s interesting we are back in Luke’s Gospel today (in year A, we mostly read Matthew). You may remember that from last year when we were reading Luke, I told you so many times that Luke is the Gospel of the little ones, the poor, the women and the children, the strangers and it’s the story of Jesus’s compassion for all those people. Yet Jesus’s goal is not to keep them powerless, it is to be bring them strength, to “raise them up”, spiritually and existentially, to show them/ reveal to them and lead them to experience themselves as beautiful and loved.
Jesus does not feel “sorry” for all those people! It’s not what compassion is about – it’s about seeing God’s glory in all. Jesus sees God’s glory in everyone, especially the overlooked.
How about us? Do we just feel sorry for ourselves, or are we in touch with our inner strength a life of prayer / adoration / relationships with God bring us? In the same way, do we feel sorry for the poor, those we see as “the little ones”, or do we see their strength and resilience and just help them to be reminded of their power by being kind, attentive and mostly encouraging and fair?
Conclusion on Jesus’s ascension
He leaves his disciples and leaves them his legacy – a legacy of love. Not so much the “power of love” than the power to love. Jesus sends out the disciples “to the ends of the earth” to receive and share the love he has shown to them. The way he remains with us…Each time you feel far from God, try a little act of love and you’ll realize God is closer than you think, not up in the sky but inside of you.
Glory = Kadov / Weight in Hebrew. Not the weight of being stuck on earth. It means that you matter / each one matters therefore we should care.
“I don’t believe that life matters because it continues. I believe that life continues because it matters. If it doesn’t continue, it still matters. We love each other imperfectly, yet love remains. My mother’s love for me did not begin or end with her. She could love me because others loved her, they could love her because they had been loved, and so on. Her love is with me now. And it will continue, through me, through everyone I love, through everyone they love, long after we are all forgotten. Whether I actually see my mom again, in the specific way I anticipate, doesn’t change that. As love, we live forever, we always will have lived.” Karen Teel Credit (Christian theologian)