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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Q: Why are you staring at the sky?

 A: It beats working. 

I wrote down a few things that strike me in the scriptures from the feast of the Ascension. I guess most of them center around the gospel version of what happened to take Jesus away, but there were some from the Acts version. In the third gospel, the disciples are usually more dependable than the quibblers and miscreants described in Mark. But they are uncharacteristically tentative in the passage from Acts. First, at the end, they make the same "mistake" they consistently make in the whole gospel, that is, they seem to mistake the importance and meaning of Jesus even at the end, asking him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” After everything else, the three days in Jerusalem, the women witnesses to the empty tomb, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the breakfast on the lake shore, it still seems to be about power. Here, at the end, there doesn’t seem to be much more understanding among them than there was at the beginning. That’s understandable. Jesus offers them service as the image of the invisible God; they opt for power, glory, rule, a kingdom like this world, because it’s the only paradigm they know. 

Matthew says “they worshipped, but they doubted.” Doubted what? Or was it not any kind of judgment by Matthew, just a statement of fact? I guess I worship, and I doubt. Why shouldn’t the disciples? Yet if it was all so obvious, if there really were a physically present, but changed, Jesus for them to experience, then what is to doubt? If there were a taking-up from the mountaintop, angels speaking, a man disappearing from sight into clouds, if someone walked through walls, appeared when the doors were locked, walked and talked and ate with nail prints in his side and a lance hole in his side, what is there to doubt? There must be something else going on here, unless they were just doubting what the future might hold for them. 

The context implies otherwise, though: “they worshipped, but they doubted.” What if it wasn’t all so obvious? What if “forty days” just means, “after enough time had passed,” and Christ’s going to God and the sending of the Holy Spirit, both of which are events that clearly central to Luke's story, were events about which there was no real vocabulary, and so these stories are constructed to help us get at the meaning of Jesus’s departure and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church? What if that’s what the angel meant when s/he said, “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” If the going was not seen with the eyes but with the heart, if the return is not so much in the body but with an awareness of Christ’s presence without a body, then maybe the return has happened, is happening, already, in the poor, the sacraments, and in the church. 

This is a lot more like modern faith (except among those for whom “faith” is the same as “fact,” people with whom I will just need to disagree.) We believe, we act in our hearts on what we love and cling to with hope, and yet we doubt, because our empirically-trained post-Enlightenment minds have seen the holes in the story and deconstructed all the romance out of the gospel, which is good. Again, paraphrasing Dostoevsky via Dorothy Day, “Love (agape) in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.” As is God, as is Jesus, it seems to me. 

Another beautiful insight from Ascension comes via Augustine, quoted in an email on a list to which I belong. St. Augustine writes, 
“So the Apostle says: Just as the human body, which has many members, is a unity, because all the different members make one body, so is it also with Christ. He too has many members, but one body. Out of compassion for us he descended from heaven, and although he ascended alone, we also ascend, because we are in him by grace. Thus, no one but Christ descended and no one but Christ ascended; not because there is no distinction between the head and the body, but because the body as a unity cannot be separated from the head.” 
Because of the body of Christ, then, we have ascended with Christ into God in some sense already, because the body is one, and cannot be separated. This is much more understandable if we don’t try to imagine heaven as a geographical place but as the dominion of God who is love, not as a kingdom, but as an eternal action and creating journey of self-gift. We can, we do, have glimpses of that glory, we share in it when we kiss, make love, embrace a child, give someone food or drink, work for a good cause, worship God with others, anything that takes us out of ourselves and into the Other. Maybe this is our “ascension,” to be “raised up” out of ourselves, and into the greater matrix of the Other, of others, of all that is beyond us. This is the etymological origin of "ecstasy" — ek-stasis, "standing outside" of the self.

That’s it, I guess. Happy spring. Give someone a kiss, but really mean it, and see if you don’t feel like you have one foot already in heaven.