Feast of the Ascension
FEAST OF THE ASCENSION
Acts 1:1-14 | Eph 1:17-23 | Mark 16:15-20
Gladden us with holy joys, Almighty God, and make us rejoice with devout thanksgiving, for the ascension of Christ, your Son, is our exaltation, and where the head has gone before in glory, the body is called to follow in hope. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
THIS feast of the ascension is, in a way, a kind of closure to the ministry of Jesus in the world as a physical presence, both in his human body and his glorified body. I’d like you to imagine with me that there were three stages in his life on this earth, and the first was the private life where he was simply growing in age and wisdom. The second was his public life, and then the third phase was life after his death in his resurrected body where he spent many, many days with his disciples, teaching them and deepening their understanding. I think all of us who work with Scripture and look to it for wisdom recognize that in these stories, the story is one thing, but what the story represents, what it points to, what it opens our imagination to is the most important thing. I like to call it the story within the story. All these words are words that we know will be interpreted for centuries, have been for centuries, will be for centuries. If they weren’t done in some kind of symbolic way, I don't know that they could really reach every generation, every level of evolution that human beings will go through. So we need to look at things in a way that says they are both real and so important and so essential that we must pay attention to them.
So let’s look at these three stages. The first is growth. Jesus enters into the world, grows in age and wisdom, lives his private life, develops his prayer life, wonders about God, studies the Scriptures, recognizes there’s something special about him, acknowledges that there’s some destiny in him, that he’s called to be a person of great importance and he’s preparing for that. And then he begins his public life. Well, think about that first part being a part of our life, and so it’s the part of us that is personal, private. It’s our time of growth. It’s the context in our life. It’s our family. It’s our experience. It’s how we come into the world. It’s who we are, in terms of our gifts and talents. We struggle and work with all that. We have this sort of private part that goes on always, but in the beginning, it sort of sets the foundation, like who am I, and what am I here for, and what am I doing. What is my destiny?
And then Jesus lives out that destiny for three short years. He finds a group of people and he does his teaching. He tries very hard to do the work that he’s called to do, and he does it in a way that is true to everything he was called to do, but it wasn’t successful. And so he’s learning the biggest lesson that we can all learn — it’s in the Scriptures today — that when we ask God, “Well, God, is it going to happen now, or is this the way it’s going to turn out? This is the way I want it to turn out, so I know you’ll help me turn it out that way.” And Jesus says in the Scriptures today, “Well, it’s not always the way we think it’s going to be.” So when we live out our lives and our destiny, we can have all kinds of expectations coming from the world. We know what the world thinks is success. It’s everything going right. It’s becoming important. It’s becoming a person — a celebrity, someone everybody knows or somebody who everybody looks up to and says, “You’re really smart at what you do. You’re the best at what you do.” Those are the kind of things that the world says is success, but the story of life, of Jesus, is the story of your life and my life. So often we have these expectations and then somehow they’re shattered. The very thing that we thought couldn’t happen or shouldn’t happen or wouldn’t happen does, and then we find ourselves in a completely confusing place and we say, “Why did this all fail? Why didn’t it work out the way I wanted it to?”
So there’s something about giving in to the way things are that is a key ingredient of this evolution of becoming like Christ, but then there’s this last part when something shifted within him. He, in a sense, entered into a level that is so mystical and so mysterious, and I believe it’s a level that we all can reach, not literally like Jesus, but being able to come back after death and eat and walk through walls and do things like that, but just in one's imagination. All of that is about going beyond the limitations of matter and form, the limitations that we often think are there. We enter into the mystical world, and we are at times like the resurrected Christ when we are able to do things that really impact others.
What is it that Jesus did when he came back after his death? Well, the second reading makes it rather clear. It says, look, when Jesus came back, he was doing something, manifesting something to his followers; he gave them proof, proof and power. So I think to myself, why did the disciples have to have this proof? Why do all of us need this proof? Jesus was a man who produced many miracles. Obviously he was somebody who was very special and unique, and you can talk to people who believe in God, and they say, “Yeah, God is great, and God is powerful and mysterious.” You can believe in that entity who is God, but God still, in that sense, stays canon, that way, staged as an idea, but the relationship that we’re supposed to have with this divinity is something that radically changes our life. And that process of being radically changed is going through proofs, and proofs are not necessarily miracles, but they’re insights that we have that we now know something, not because we’re told, but we really know it. It's as if God were saying to you and me, “I want you to give into reality the way it is, and you’ll find peace,” and we say, “No, I want things to be the way I want them to be. I’ll work harder to make them the way I want them to be. I’ll pray harder. I’ll keep resisting reality, and I’ll find peace.” The proof is it doesn’t work, and then you find that, if you give in to what is and you’re not really resisting it and you find that there must be some hidden meaning in the way all this is going, all of a sudden, this mysterious, peaceful feeling comes over you. That’s proof, but not only does he give you proof, but he also wants you to have power.
This is the mysterious thing about Jesus. He came into the world as a model of whom we are to be, and he was obviously extraordinarily powerful. He could do amazing things. He was articulate. He was clear. He was authentic. He was a healer. He did all kinds of things, mostly as a revealer of wisdom that had been hidden forever, and when he has that — the point is that, when Jesus did all this, through his giving in to reality and giving in to the way that God said it had to be written, something shifted in our consciousness, and we were given this incredible jolt into a greater capacity to understand things. And we have this God now who is saying, “I’m giving you a gift of wisdom. I’m opening the eyes of your heart, and you’re seeing things.”
Do you realize that all the power that we need, in terms of motivation and drive and things, is all about the way we see? If you see the discipline that you’re trying to attach to your life, if you see the things that you need to cut out, the things that you need to go for, if you see those are things you’re supposed to do, chances are you don’t have the energy to do them when they're difficult. But if you know that they are the difference between being saved or condemned — which are interesting words used in the Scripture today— you think "saved" means going to heaven and "condemned" means going to hell. I don’t think that’s always the case. Certainly those words can refer to those results, but being saved is living in a world that God has created for you and for me, which is free of all the negativity and all the pain and suffering that is unnecessary and unhealthy, in the sense that it does nothing but destroy spirit and create depression.
There are two kinds of pain in the world: the pain that deepens us and strengthens us, or the pain that destroys us. We’re condemned to having this destructive element in our life, or we’re saved from it by understanding the wisdom that God is giving us through this figure of Jesus. And then look at the things that are promised to disciples when Jesus is speaking to them in the gospel. He says, “I want you all to understand that I’m doing something for you with proofs, with power, and what’s coming to you is this mysterious thing called the Holy Spirit. And the best way to describe that is it's some kind of ability, strength, energy, grace, and power to be able to get to the core of things and to see and understand things in a way that frees you from the condemnation of a miserable life.”
So much of what the world promises is one-sided. It promises that, if this happens, you’ll be happy, and if you have this, you’ll be happy, and if you accomplish this, you’ll be happy. There’s always the negative. What if you don’t have that, or what if you don’t accomplish that? Then you’re not going to be happy. There is nothing like that in the kingdom. The only thing the kingdom is inviting you into is a heart that sees to the core of things, the wisdom that knows what’s real and what’s not, and somehow simply surrenders, admits to, allows this process to happen, which is called life — life.
But look at the description that Jesus gives about it because it sounds so weird in one sense. First of all, he says you’re going to be able to get rid of demons. That’s a great idea. I would love to get rid of demons, but I don't know which demon he’s sometimes talking about. But think about demons this way. Think about all those dispositions and attitudes that create pain and suffering that lead to depression, and there are three of them I always talk about. Fear — what’s going to happen to me in the future? Where is my security? Anger — I don’t like the way things are going. I don’t like this. This is not the way it’s supposed to be. Shame — I can’t believe I did that in the past. I can’t get past it. I can’t forget it. It’s always creating, somehow, some kind of burden for me. Those are demons. This way, this power, this proof that Jesus promises us, that he speaks of, when he returns to the Father and then also comes into us, is a powerful thing when he says we can get rid of these demons and speak new languages.
At Pentecost, it was amazing to hear people speaking different languages, but everybody heard them in their own language. There is a language, a truth, a way of seeing that is so universal that, when everybody hears it, they understand it. That’s a new language, not the language of my way or my religion or my understanding of the world. When people are imposing their way on somebody else and there's nothing more than their way, it never works, but if it’s the way, everybody gets it.
To drink deadly things, handle serpents and not be harmed — the serpent is a fascinating creature in Scripture because in the Old Testament, the book of Genesis, there is the serpent, and it’s not the devil in that story as much as it is a symbol of one of the most devastating, destructive elements in the world, and it may not seem like it’s that big, but it is big — lies. Lies. You’ll be able to live around lies. You’ll be able to be, in a sense, attacked by the sneaky, quiet way in which a lie slips in and then bites. It hurts because you’re living it, and when you’re living a lie, there will not be the result that you want. It can’t produce what it promises if it’s a lie. You’re going to be able to deal with all of that. It’s interesting. We often think, “If I can just get rid of all my weaknesses, all my problems, if I can live in a world where there aren't any temptation or stress or somebody lying to me, I’ll be all right.” No, no. You’re going to be in that situation, surrounded by snakes, but don’t worry. So long as you see them for what they are, their poison is not going to work.
And then the best — the best is whatever you lay your hands on will be healed. What an incredible promise. If you are healed, if you see through the lies, if you are somehow able to recognize the power and the proof that this essence of religion is calling you to get in touch wit — then you know the real world is the one we live in. This religious sort of out-there world that's partly this world, partly that world is not that. Religion means to bind together. It means to ground us, to root us in who we are, who God is in us, what the power that we have as human beings is there for. It’s almost like it’s this gigantic set of light bulbs going off everywhere, and all of a sudden, you see. You see what’s real, and you say, “That’s what I want. That’s what I want.”
So to be touched by that reality and truth, when you’re living it, means you are going to be a healing force in the world. There’s no doubt about it. I love when St. Francis said it this way to his brothers: “I want you to be preaching constantly. Constantly preach the gospel, but only when necessary use words.” So there’s something about the resonance of a human being in the world that is peaceful, that is joyous, that rolls with things that aren’t going well, that has a kind of inner calm. If you have that kind of people in your life, you’re so lucky. They’re rare, unfortunately, but let’s pray that they’re growing in numbers always, from century to century as we grow as human beings more into the fullness of what it means to be human, what it means to be inspired by a wisdom greater than ourselves, living out that wisdom. That’s the goal. That’s the promise that is given to us as Jesus left the world.
Father, your gifts abound around us. It is up to us to awaken our consciousness to the fullness of what you are offering so that we stop judging so much the teaching that we receive from you as whether it’s right or not and just somehow believe and trust that it is absolutely centered on one, core goal, the goal of awakening in us the fullness of life. Let us trust in this gift, experience this gift and share this gift with one another. And we ask this through Christ our Lord, amen.