Ascension, the Disappearing Holy Day

So tomorrow (Thursday) is the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, which, in some places, is a Holy Day of Opportunity...in some places, the Feast is transferred to Sunday. What-eva. While I don't always agree with my traditionalist Catholic sisters and brothers, on the question of whether we ought to be accomodating the 5-day workweek this much, I'm entirely in agreement. Yes, I know getting to Mass during the day can be a hardship, particularly for those who are already working two jobs just to stay afloat. But for most of the people reading this blog, cutting lunch short to go to church isn't going to cause you to faint mid-afternoon. And further, especially if done with some other action in solidarity with those in our society who are barely getting by and working 70-hour work weeks, the witness of the Christian community that the secular workweek is less important than God is a potentially good way of relativising the amount of control capitalism and consumerism have over us.

But enough about moving Holy Days; the Feast of the Ascension is the red-headed stepchild of the mysteries of Jesus' life (I'm not sure I can say that, but I just did...). When was the last time that the ascension of Jesus made any difference in your faith life, or in how you thought about Christ's presence in the world? And even though, if you worship in a church where the creed is recited, you've been saying that Christ ascended into heaven every Sunday, isn't the idea of Jesus floating up into the clouds (feet sticking out, as in this lovely woodcut by Dürer) just a little bit embarassing? I mean, where exactly did he go, into orbit?

I might suggest that there are at least two things that would be most helpful for us to recover a sense of meaning in the feast of the Ascension today. First, we need to respond to the Jesus-In-Space theory. Then, we can talk about why Christ's "ascending into heaven" isn't just a throwaway line in the creed, nor an ad hoc explanation of why he doesn't show up so much anymore (unless you're Blessed Faustina, but that's another story...).

So where did he go? And is that the right question? It seems to me that it was rather clever on Jesus' part to ascend into heaven, though the physics might not be the clincher. The main thing seems to have been that after forty days, or so...at least a definite time period...of the apostles' witnessing the risen lord with enough regularity, physicality (hello, Thomas), and intensity that they would never doubt their own experience that a) Jesus had risen from the dead, b) it wasn't some sort of ghost or hallucination, and c) it was the same Jesus who had walked with them, been crucified, and been betrayed by them, who also rose and forgave them. But they needed to go out and start preaching the Gospel that, in this passion and resurrection, the Reign of God had already begun. But they weren't doing that...they were just sort of hanging around. So he had to get going, and, if you're the Risen Christ and can be present in any way that you wish (remember, he'd already walked through some doors...I have to think he must have snuck up behind them and tickled them or something sometimes too, maybe to make his mom laugh...), but you need to let them know that you're not going to be coming around anymore in the same way, as a resurrected human person, body and soul, but will be staying "with the Father" (whatever that means), then wouldn't you want to make a grand exit so there was no doubt in their minds that a major change had happened? Furthermore, if you were going "to the Father", and you and your friends all knew exactly "where" the Father was, it would seem silly if you said "I'm going to be with the Father" and then sunk into the earth or ran and hid behind a bush and disappeared or something.

Now where does that leave us? Well, it's harder to think that the Father is "up there", when we've been up there ourselves and seen the pictures. But I think, again, that the physics is sort of irrevelant. What is important is Christ's eternal "being with the Father". And it seems really important that Jesus is with the Father not just as a floating spirit of some sort, and not just as a person of the Trinity who finally gets to take off his human nature or body like it was a particularly uncomfortable and unflattering bridesmaid's dress (a fun heresy called "Docetism"), but is present with the Father both as the Second Person of the Trinity, and (huge "and" here) as a human being, body and spirit. So the Resurrection is, among other things, our proof that God's love is stronger than death; the Ascension gives us a preview that God's love also brings us into a relationship with God as whole people, as bodies and souls. It means that, whether you want to call it "up there" or "over there" or "nowhere", a human person is directly part of God's trinitarian life.

So where does that leave us, as Christians? Well, the next nine days are a time of prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit (the original novena). And it's also, IMHO, a recurring phenomenon of the Christian life...sometimes we live Advent, in expectation of God-with-us; sometimes we live Lent, in awareness of our distance from God; but sometimes we live post-Ascension, knowing that Christ is Risen, but not knowing what we're supposed to do, not having the courage or the prudence or the fortitude to fully live out our discipleship. Sometimes we live waiting for the Spirit. These are also the times when we realize that Christ, who has been present to us in one way (through our families, through our loves, through some of our false images of God), is going to be present to us somehow differently. And this time, like all time, is a time of grace.

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