Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension. Alas, because so few of us attend weekday feasts, most parishes celebrate the Ascension on this Sunday following the feast. Because we celebrate the major feasts of the church with hindsight and developed reflection, we miss the intense emotions that those events caused for the ones who initially experienced the events. Immediate experiences are often full of raw emotion that time mitigates. We soften the reality of the initial experience.
All of us have experienced death in one form or another. Some of us have even experienced the traumatic and violent death of someone we love. And in most instances, death itself is upheaval. Imagine the death of a beloved child or spouse or close sibling. Go through being with that loved one at the time of agony, being helpless and powerless to stop the pain and death. Imagine holding the loved one at the time of death, closing the eyes, a kiss good-bye. Image the drama and the trauma of the funeral process, the funeral home, the viewing, the church service, the burial.
Go home, and the next day awake to find your dead son or spouse or sibling standing there in the room beside your bed, not in some mystical imagining, but in real tangible, physical, touchable, talking flesh and blood. Imagine the shock, the confusion, the doubting of your own sanity.
Hear your loved one explain to you how much he loves you, how much you must do to honor his memory. Then he tells you he must leave you again forever in this life. You walk with him out into the backyard and suddenly the clouds part, and like a helicopter on lift-off, you see him ascending into the sky. Stunned, you lift your hand to wave, and at the same time you want to scream out, âNo, no! Donât leave us again. Stay.â
Ascension can hurt.
To let go of someone we love takes a great deal of courage, self-sacrifice, love. To let go of someone we love requires thinking of the needs of and benefits to the beloved more than to ourselves. In our natural state, we want to hold on, cling tight, never let go. The Ascension is a shocking feast of surrender, of being left behind, of letting the other go where we cannot, to wish the best for another even if it leaves less for oneself. In the course of our lives, we experience this letting go of love in many daily ways. It is allowing the other to be other and to not be for us. It takes a great deal of courage to live Ascension., to risk a new dimension of living.
Jesus tells the disciples that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon them, but how could they possibly know what this could mean? They were raw, vulnerable people, still frightened from the horrors of the previous week. This final appearance and then disappearance must have felt like post-traumatic stress, a reliving of the life and death of their hoped-for savior. And, oh, how alone they must have felt as they saw the clouds part and their beloved Jesus taken into heaven, disappearing from sight.
Loneliness is one of the greatest sorrows we experience in life, and all of us have experienced loneliness. We can handle much physical suffering. We can handle much emotional suffering. But loneliness in its barren solitude rips out the floorboards. We stand in a cold draft with no one to surround us with warmth, left suspended with no one to share the pain.
And then Jesus comes and says to us, âI will not leave you. I will be with you, even unto the ends of the earth.â
What does this being with us mean, Jesus? You are just about to disappear into the clouds.
Not only does Jesus promise to be with us, this is a promise of the physical reality of Christ. Do not be surprised at this fiery order, says Peterâs letter, as though something strange were happening to you. Strange indeed it was to experience the violent death of Jesus, the stone-moving empty tomb, the upper room with Jesus in the midst. And now, this ascending disappearing act.
Yet the words repeat inside us, âI will not leave you. I will be with you. I must go, but my Spirit will come and be with you.â
And then Peterâs letter goes on to assure us of the Spirit of God resting upon us. The Mighty Hand of God is resting upon us and will restore, support, strengthen, and establish us. Ponder those words: ârestore, support, strengthen, and establish usâ.
Ascension comes in the spring. Those words speak of the fragile life of the perennials, peeking up from the lonely winter soil, the bulbs established in the dirt, supported, strengthened, restored to new life, growing, blooming. There is hope and completion and restoration. Wood grows green again.
We are under the Mighty Hand of God, says Peter.
Place your hands upon your own head. Do so now.
Feel these hands as the Mighty Hand of God. Pause. Press them into you. Hold them there. Be silent under them. Be still under the Mighty Hands of God. Know you are not alone. Know there is no loneliness. Know God is with you, pressing down upon you, supporting, strengthening, renewing, restoring. Begin to feel this. Begin to believe this.
When you are afraid, feel these Mighty Hands of God pressed upon your head. When you are lonely, feel these Mighty Hands of God over you. When you need to be restored, supported, strengthened, established, feel these Might Hands of God reaching out and blessing you, touching you, healing, and renewing.
Know that Jesus is praying for us. That is an awesome thought. That Jesus himself is praying for us. Not a friend or a favorite saint, but Jesus. Jesus standing before God, praying for us.
âProtect them,â says Jesus to the Holy Father. âProtect them for me. Surround them with your Mighty Hands. Hold them, unite them to us, draw them into us, make us one. One.â