Although the diocese in which I grew up still celebrates “Ascension Thursday,” today is the celebration of the Ascension of the Lord in much of the United States.
I’ve prayed many times with the various accounts of Jesus’ ascension, often using Ignatian Contemplation to do so. As a result, I perked up when I read Denise Levertov describe her poem Ascension as an Ignatian effort.
In an interview in which she was asked to explain what she meant, she said that although she wrote the poem before she did the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, she was struck by how much of what St. Ignatius recommended resembles what a poet does. In Ascension, “I try to imagine what such and such an experience was to that person I’m writing about: it’s a matter of getting inside the person and the experience. But in “Ascension” it’s not about any ordinary historical figure and so it is more of a religious exercise, to try to make clear to oneself what might have been going on inside Jesus Christ the individual.”
For your reflection on this Feast of the Ascension, here is Levertov’s poem:
Stretching Himself as if again,
through downpress of dust
upward, soil giving way
to the thread of white, that reaches
for daylight, to open as green
leaf that it is…
not have been
as the return
from Sheol, and
back through the tomb
now must relinquish
as Man –
Eye of Eternity.
Mothering His birth:
torture and bliss.
Where I come from (New York diocese) Ascension was celebrated on Thursday. But here in the Twin Cities, today is the celebration of the Ascension of the Lord.
In our first Mass reading for this day, we hear the account of Jesus’ Ascension in Acts. At the end of the reading, two men in white garments come upon the disciples, who are gazing up toward heaven as Jesus ascends. They ask the disciples, “Why do you stand there looking at the sky?”
I’m not sure the disciples at that point understood the reason Jesus had to ascend. They were too filled with a sense of his loss to have embraced what he had told them when he said that he had to leave, but that they would receive the power of the Spirit.
In a sermon on the Ascension, Karl Rahner explains it well for us:
Because he wanted to come close to us definitively, he has gone away and taken us with him. Because he was lifted up (on the cross of death and to the right hand of the Father) he and everything in him have become near. The reason for this is that his Spirit – the Spirit in whom Christ is near to us, the Spirit upon whom Christ from eternity in eternity bestows the eternal fullness of life from the Father, the Spirit over and above which there is nothing that Christ could give in all eternity – this Spirit is in us now. He is in us as the basis of the nearness of eternal contemplation, as the basis of the transfiguration of the flesh. We notice nothing of this, and that is why the Ascension seems to be separation. But it is separation only for our paltry consciousness. We must will to believe in such a nearness – in the Holy Spirit…..When we are apparently estranged from the nearness of his earthly flesh, then we are the more united with him…..He takes on our semblance only to give us his own reality – the eternal, inexpressible reality that he received from the Father, that he gives us in his Spirit, and that we can receive because he, returning home with all that is ours, made it possible to share in God’s own life.
Yesterday was the last session of the Lent Retreat in Daily Living I offered at UST Law School this lenten season. As always, it was a privilege to be able to guide the participants in their prayer during these weeks of Lent.
After the participants spent some time sharing a bit of their prayer epxerience of the past week, I spoke about the events that follow Jesus’ death. I did so because I think it is important, as we approach the end of Lent, to go through Holy Week remembering that the passion and death of Jesus is not the final piece of the story that began with Jesus’ incarnation. I focused in my talk on what the Resurrection, Ascension and Coming of the Spirit mean for us as disciples.
Although yesterday was our last gathering as a group, I gave the participants prayer material for this week and next. As I said during my talk, Christians (and especially Catholics) are great at Lent, but we sometimes forget to focus attention on what happens following Easter. And so I encouraged them to really take some time with the Post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus (which will be the subject of a four-week program I’m co-presenting at St. Thomas Apostle beginning the Wednesday after Easter).
You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 20:43.) A copy of the prayer material for this week of prayer is here.
I have always understood Christ’s incarnation as intimately connected to his death and resurrection. What I have increasingly come to understand, in a way I don’t think I fully appreciated before, is that Christ’s ascension, (which many dioceses, including the one in which I currently live, celebrate today), and the resulting coming of the Spirit are also inextricably linked to his life, death and resurrection.
All this week, we have been listening to Jesus’ final message to his disciples. In different ways, he has conveyed to them his need to go from them “for if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I do, I will send him to you.” Jesus ascends so that the Spirit may come and, in Henri Nouwen’s words, “lead them to full intimacy with [Jesus]. His Spirit would open their eyes and make them fullly understand who he is and why he had come to be with them.”
Christ’s ascension, and the coming of the Spirit, which we will shortly celebrate, are the necessary culmination of Jesus’ life among us. They mean that God who became man both goes to prepare a place for us and indwells in us. (Someone once said to me, “I’m confused. Sometimes it sounds like God is out there and sometimes it sounds like God is within.” It is only confusing if one thinks it has to be either. Once we recognize it is both, there is no confusion.) Again, in Nouwen’s words, “the deepest communion with Jesus is the communion that happens in his absence.” Having ascended to his Father, Jesus now dwells within us in a way that could not have happened but for the ascension.
May we grow in our awareness that through Christ’s ascension we have entered into a greater intimacy with God, who dwells in us.
In a discussion about the meaning of the Ascension yesterday, someone relayed a comment made to her by a teenage boy. The teen said that the Ascension was one of his favorite Holy Days in the liturgical calendar because he understood it as Jesus saying, “The ball’s in your court now.”
The line stayed with me. I think it conveys a great way to think of the Ascension. Jesus came. He lived among us teaching, healing, praying, modeling obedience to the Father. He died, rose, and spend time with his friends after the Resurrection. And then He returned to His Father.
One of the last thing Jesus tells His disciples before he (in Mark’s words) “was taken up into heaven [to take] his seat at the fight hand of God” is, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” By His life, death and Resurrection, he taught us everything we need to do exactly that, everything we need to know and do to continue His work.
That was not a charge given only to those who saw Jesus physically ascend. It is the charge Jesus gives to all of us who would be called Christian disciples. Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel.
The ball’s in your court. What are you going to do with it?
Until recently, I lived in a diocese that celebrates the Ascension on the traditional 40th day after Easter, so I still think in terms of “Ascension Thursday.” However, in many diocese, today is the day on which the solemnity is celebrated. For those celebrating today, my reflection on the Ascension, which I posted Thursday, is here.