Thursday 30 May 2019: Ascension Day
A Cosmic Bookend?
Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53
By Anne Morris
A Roman Catholic religious sister, a Daughter of the Holy Spirit, and Deputy Director at St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre in North Wales
Context: a homily for the daily Eucharist – generally 50 adults attending, coming from a variety of Christian traditions
Aim: to provide a simple way into an idea of cosmic proportions
Jesus returns home to his own bed!
Some years ago, I was kneeling in church on the feast of the Ascension and had a strong sense of Jesus returning home. Not to his home in Nazareth, but to his home in heaven. Leaning over to the Sister seated next to me, I whispered this idea to her. Her reply has remained with me ever since. ‘Yes’, she said, ‘there’s nothing like getting home to your own little bed!’ In such homely, prosaic terms some measure of a great truth is expressed. Jesus’ work on earth having been completed, he finally leaves for his Father’s house and his own bed. This sense of his going home was further reinforced by later seeing a poster of the Father embracing Jesus, squeezing him so tight that it looked as if he would never let him go. It invited me to think afresh about what the Christian church celebrates on this day.
The Ascension marks an end certainly; the end of 33 years of Jesus’ life on earth, the Word having become flesh and dwelt among us. As Christians we are unique in world faiths in believing in a God that took on the human condition. Augustine of Hippo expresses it thus:
’The Maker of man was made human, that the ruler of the stars might be fed at the breast; the Bread might be hungry; the Fountain thirst; the Light sleep; the Way be wearied by the journey; ...the Life die...’
Having lived those human years and given the Apostles all he could during the last three of them, he wasn’t quite finished. He offered another 40 days of a ‘handover period’. He knew they weren’t ready, indeed would never be ready while he physically remained with them, but he gave another 40 days for them to adjust to his departure. Even at the last minute they are still asking when the kingdom of Israel will be restored. Was Jesus muttering under his breath at the point, ‘give me strength!’? The finality, this time, of his departure must have been painful, another bewildering experience in the grieving process. Perhaps a sense of being finally abandoned?
But the Ascension is a departure not an abandonment. It marks a beginning, a new way of Jesus relating to the world. In the readings chosen for the day we have Luke beginning his Acts of the Apostles with the story, and also ending his Gospel with it. The Ascension stands as a solid bookend between that went before and all that will follow after. While the two accounts offer different details (for example the Gospel names the site of his departure as on the outskirts of Bethany the place where his close friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived) both passages have in common a missioning of the disciples and a promise that the Spirit will be sent.
For Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit palaeontologist who worked to understand evolution and faith, the Ascension was one of his favourite feasts. He believed that, in addition to serving as a bookend to the Incarnation in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, the Ascension highlighted the Cosmic nature of the Christ and the synthesis of matter and spirit.
Getting our heads around the Cosmic nature of Christ is rather more demanding than imagining Jesus going home to his own bed, but it’s worth holding the two ideas together.
The Word who took on human nature had now shed that human form. As Denise Levertov in her poem on Ascension says:
’Can Ascension not have been arduous, almost as the return from Sheol,
and back through the tomb into breath?
Matter reanimate now must relinquish itself, its human cells,
molecules, five senses, linear vision endured as Man –
the sole all-encompassing gaze resumed now, Eye of Eternity.’
No longer bound by the consciousness of time
In the Ascension, Jesus is returning to the Father, but it’s not quite like putting the toothpaste back into the tube, because all is altered by his Incarnation, his birth, death and resurrection. He takes with him an eternal memory of what it is to be human from the inside. Nothing will ever be the same again and, no longer restricted to a particular time and space, his Spirit will infuse all of creation. This Feast also points us toward a deeper understanding of Pentecost which we will shortly celebrate. The very Breath of God, His Holy Spirit, has been breathed into the Body of Christ, the Church - and into each one of us as members of that Body.
Perhaps this moment of Ascension, can be best described in the writing of a mountaineer. This young man rescued his friend and fellow mountaineer from certain death on a mountain, an experience of intense feeling and awareness:
’We can briefly enter a place in which we don’t feel the losses of the past or the fears of the future, where we can even escape the torment of death because we are no longer bound by the consciousness of time. These moments are often found in the mountains, but also in other parts of existence. They come from the intensity of applied awareness when, like a child, you let your mind increase its capacity to absorb what is around you and become capable of true appreciation and love. They are the finest moments of all.’
From an article written by Quentin Lindfield Roberts in the Alpinist 64
This is as good a way as any I could summon up in describing the Ascension, the point at which Jesus of Nazareth becomes the Cosmic Christ. But I do hope he still has his own little bed to go home to!
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