It is hard to talk about the Feast of the Ascension (that great departure of Jesus in his physical form) without also talking about next Sunday’s Feast of Pentecost (that great return of Jesus in his spiritual form). Let’s just stay with today’s feast, Ascension, because if we do Ascension well, Pentecost almost takes care of itself.
When I think of Ascension, I can’t help but think of words we often hear the priest pray during a funeral mass: “Life is changed, not ended.” For anyone who has ever lost a loved one, including the disciples 2000 years ago, it initially feels like life has, for all intents and purposes, ended. Only with time, can we once again believe that life is changed, not ended. In other words, we do not get over our grief that quickly. Maybe that is why they say, “Time heals all wounds.”
While I believe that is true, I also believe something has to happen in that time, in that gap between the great departure and the great return, if any healing is to occur. Otherwise, we will just become bitter and angry, and complain that life is not fair. What has to happen is a letting go, and letting go always feels like a death. That is why most of us let go only when we absolutely have to because we feel we have no choice.
Before Jesus sends his disciples to “go to into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole of creation,” he first instructs them to “wait for the promise of the Father.” Wait for the Spirit. Before you run out to save the world or fix the world with your vision of what you think the world should be, wait, pause, let something die in you so that my vision can come to you and empower you from on high. This will surely feel like death, and it will be a kind of death. Waiting makes us all feel so powerless. We say to ourselves inwardly, “I feel useless to change this situation for the better. There must be something more I can do than just sit here and wait.” Generally, men tend to have more difficulty with waiting than women. If we men could get pregnant, we would try to jam nine months into nine weeks. The waiting and grieving mode is very different than the fixing mode, which wants a solution right away.
I think with Ascension, Jesus is preparing his disciples to let go, so that with open hands, they can now receive his Spirit, his enduring presence. Ascension is not the end of Christ’s presence but a change in the way his presence is experienced. Jesus made it very clear that until he left (physically) he could not return to us in his Spirit. Mary Magdalene, on that first Easter morning, after encountering the Risen Lord, lunged at him and tried to hold on to him. The Risen Lord said to her, “Mary, do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.” Jesus didn’t want Mary to settle for his limited, physical self. What he wanted to give her was his deeper, more intimate self, his Spirit. But he could not release that Spirit into her heart and into the world until he ascended to God. And that would require waiting. She wanted him on the old terms. He was trying to convince her the best was yet to come.
There is always a dying that accompanies waiting. There is always a gap between Ascension and Pentecost. Mary Magdalene had to die to her desire to relate to Jesus as she always related to him—in the flesh. If she could stop clinging and learn to wait, Jesus would come to her in the power of his Spirit. We are told the Apostles do not fair any better than Mary Magdalene did. When the Risen Lord appeared to them, they ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” They wanted something to happen right here, right now, in this time. They, like Mary Magdalene, are clinging. What are they clinging onto? They are clinging onto the notion that the Messiah’s job is to come into the world like an armed warrior, and overthrow the Roman Empire with military force. This is what must die in them. This is what they must learn to let go of. This false notion of what it means to be the Messiah must die in them. Until it dies, the real Messiah cannot come. Clinging to their own ways, they are not in a position to receive Jesus’s Spirit. Their hands are closed tightly around the old and, so, cannot open to welcome the new.
Picture someone you have had to say good-bye to in death, someone you were close to. Imagine them right now. Picture yourself after the funeral when the crowd, with all their supportive words and gestures, has gone home and you sit and wait by yourself… Think of how hard it was for you to let them go of that person, of how hard it was not to cling… Forgive yourself for being human, for clinging to that person, and wanting them to remain with you on all the old terms… Slowly open your hands to let them go… Thank them for being part of your life… Forgive them for their faults and ask them to forgive you… With your hands still open, watch them physically move away from you… Without breaking eye contact with that person, watch them return to you in their spirit, radiant like you have never seen them before.
This is Ascension. Why does it take 40 days? Maybe that is how long it takes for us to dare to open our hands, to let go, to die inwardly, and to prepare ourselves to receive again. It seems to be the pattern of Jesus’ life, the pattern of all nature, and the pattern of your life and mine.
As you get ready to plant your gardens from seed, you will notice instructions on the back of the package of seeds. It will say something like: takes 7-10 days to germinate. That’s Ascension. That is the time it takes for the seed to die, in darkness, in obscurity, and away from human observation. Just when the seed dies to itself, a new version of itself emerges.
Let’s learn to wait, like the seed, and Pentecost will take care of itself.
Fr. Phil Mulligan