Our Sacred Stories ~ Ascension Relationship: Apart Yet Present
May is a time for graduations in colleges and universities. The target that has been ahead of us for so many years has been reached and finally our program has been completed. The grads are recognized and feted by family and friends. It is an occasion for congratulations and applause.
We face many such transitions in our lives, many of them joy-filled, like graduations, wedding, birth of a child. In all of them we face change and letting go of what used to be for the sake of something new. In some way we have to say “goodbye” to the life we had gotten used to, in order to pass to a new life, and we do so joyfully.
Such occasions however can be and often are bitter sweet times. For all the joy of coming to this milestone in our lives, we are moving away from the what has long been the focus of our lives, letting go of what is so much part of us. The relationships and the routines that have been at the center of our lives will not be there. We must let go of what we have known, for something that is new to us.
Saying goodbye is never easy. Over our lifetimes we have many such goodbyes, and many are joyful like graduations or weddings or the birth of a child. They demand that we somehow let go of what has been so significant to us, for the sake of what is obviously a greater, more meaningful life.
There are however some changes, some goodbyes that are painful. The death of a loved one is particularly difficult. In some ways, it leaves a “hole in our heart” and we find ourselves facing a confusing time. What has been our normal life and contentment has been disrupted. There is a sense that we find ourselves in what some have called a “liminal” space, a kind of borderland in life. The loss or the change that is occurring places us in a very unfamiliar and uncomfortable place, saying goodbye to a relationship of deep meaning.
The Ascension was just such an experience of loss for the disciples. They found themselves in a liminal space not knowing how to respond. As the Scriptures speak of the Ascension, it may seem that Jesus is somehow leaving his disciples. But when we look more closely at the Gospel accounts it is evident that they speak of leaving and at the time staying. There is a sense of Jesus leaving and yet remaining with his disciples, in a new way.
The classic image of the ascension of Jesus is captured in the story that we find in the Acts of the Apostles. The writer of the Acts tells the story of the earliest Christian communities after the resurrection of Jesus. Acts begins the story with the account of Jesus leaving the disciples and ascending to heaven, or put another way with the return of Jesus to the Father. But it is a story of “leaving yet remaining.” (Acts 1:1-11)
Acts shows the disciples in a “liminal space”. The physical Jesus with whom they walked and talked is gone. They are confused and uncertain. Some even doubt. But their emerging faith in the resurrection reveals a new relationship with the Spirit of the Risen One. The Gospel writer, Matthew reveals the impact of this new relationship. (Matt.28:16-20)
The Spirit of Jesus leads the disciples to discover their role: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Filled with that Spirit, they are to share it, to proclaim as Jesus did, in word and action the Good News for all humanity, all Creation. And as they move through that “liminal space” into a new world, Jesus offers them reassurance: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”