Saturday, May 16, 2015

Ascension: The Final Goodbye?

Originally Published May 4, 2008

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

By Rev. Joe McCloskey, SJ

While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven." Acts 1:10-11

"All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age." Matthew 28:18-20

We pray with the Apostles to the Lord of the Ascension: O Lord, we cannot let you go. We need you to stay because without you, we are unable to face the problems of life. How can we do anything without you?
We like to touch and feel. If you are gone it will not be the same. We need to know your closeness and be with you in the confidence we have when you are NEAR, and close enough to touch. Do not go Lord. Stay on because there is no one who can replace our need of having you close.
How we want to see you, Lord. We cannot believe that you are lost in the clouds. Will you return? Can we not hold on to you? Do you have to go?
Do you really want to stay as much as we want you to stay? Your ascension is our prayer of questions.
Goodbye has many different meanings. The Ascension is a goodbye; it signifies Christ is going to the Father and no longer with us in his pre-resurrection, unglorified body. The human Christ seems gone forever and the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, remains. The humanness of Christ continues among us in the Sacraments. He is in every Christian by their Baptism into his life. Christ is present in the person we love. He is hidden from us in the person we neglect. Christ abides in us through Baptism and the indwelling of the Trinity. Christ enlivens the moment of Eucharist. Christ is in the midst of the two or three who gather in his name. We neglect to see the Christ whom we persecute by blocking the good another is doing. Christ is alive in the good deeds one does.
Christ comes as the guest we welcome in his name. Christ is embodied in the Vicar of Christ. Christ speaks in the different forms of authority in the Church. Christ presides when civil leaders rightfully claim our obedience. Christ who stays and the Christ who left is one and the same person. The paradox of his going and staying at the same time is the mystery of Ascension. The going of Christ is his staying in a more ample way. Christ keeps his promise to remain with us forever in the Sacramental life of the Church. His love is celebrated in Eucharist all over the world from the rising of the sun to its setting. All the ways Christ reaches us are expressions of his abiding love
Ascension is "goodbye." Christ is going to the Father. The ascension as the goodbye of all time teaches us how to say goodbye in time. It is not a good goodbye if we do not want to see the one we are leaving ever again. That is more like getting rid of someone. Christ is still present to his Church. His type of goodbye implies a return sooner rather than later. The ascension is the best of goodbyes because Christ will always we present to those he loves by going to the Father and bringing us with him. We are with him there and he is with us here. The mystery of divine indwelling is the mystery of God with us, not gone. The love poured out on the cross is enough for the whole world. The victory already won belongs to the Christ of the Resurrection. The ascension is a going which implies the all given, or soon to be given, in Pentecost.

Pentecost would enable the Apostles to make use of the gifts they already possessed. The coming of the Spirit would pull together and make sense out of all the Apostles had learned from Christ. Christ chose to leave but the Spirit would be sent to continue to instruct and strengthen the Apostles as they went about their task of passing on what Christ had taught them. Subsidiarity, the passing on of responsibility to another, is the result of Pentecost. It is a process that began in the ascension. We would be remiss in our duties if we left before a job was finished or before it had enough momentum to be finished without our help. Subsidiarity is possible when all the responsibility that needs to be given has been given. The responsibility of claiming the world for the Father is the mission Christ had from the God. What is still left of the task is continued in the Church. Christ could go because his mission had been passed on. The disciples had accepted the challenge. Christ gave them all they needed to accomplish this work. At Pentecost the disciples would discover what the going of the Ascension meant.

The disciples did not want Christ to go. They were told there would be some special message. They gathered in Galilee because they were told to do so. They received their mandate from Christ. If we are good at the work we do, some will be reluctant to take our job while we are around.
If we have to go and the job needs doing, someone will be found to continue where we left off. The Apostles had to be told by the angels to move on. Do we ever believe someone we love is gone? The hardest part of celibate living is the desire to hold on to those we love. People come and go in our lives and they take our hearts with them. We have chosen to be celibates out of love for Christ. The very love we have for Christ allows us to know the truth of our heart. Christ lets us love one another with his love. Wherever there is love, God is there. God is there when Christ's love flows from our heart. The celibate man or woman lives the ascension by allowing those who are loved to move on to where they are needed. Celibates discover in their lives how loved they are, and how greatly they need the love of their brothers and sisters. Love wants the beloved close and feels strongly the separation. The Apostles were shocked to find that Christ was going. How can anyone let Christ go? The Apostles were the first of the many who would have to let a beloved go. However, for John, the "Beloved Disciple," there would be no final goodbye to Christ. Their ongoing love would keep them close to each other so that even in the going there would be a staying.
The people of Appalachia were the first ones I ever met who said goodbye by telling me to stay. I stood up to leave and they said, "Stay a while." I thought something was left undone. So I sat down again. Soon I thought they were foolish in telling me to stay if they had nothing more they wanted from me. It became a comedy of errors on my part as up, down, up, down I went, until finally I realized what they meant. They wanted me to stay because they had enjoyed the visit. "Please come back soon" would have been easier to understand than the stay awhile that meant goodbye. Yet the "Do not go" is so much more expressive of the attitude of the Apostles saying goodbye to Christ. The ascension could be the Christian celebration of a saying goodbye.

I felt deeply the reluctant goodbye of the Mountain people when my mother, who was terribly sick and at the end of her life, asked me if it was okay to pray for a quick death. If I told my mother too easily that it was okay to go, she would feel that we did not want her around. I had heard mom as she told my sister that I did not want her to go. I knew then that it was time to give her permission to go, because now she knew that we wanted her around no matter what the cost was to us. Her pain of living had reached such an intensity that it would have been terribly selfish to have held onto her. Leave taking takes so many forms. The night before she died I told the Lord that if he did not take her, I would not speak to him for a month, I would be that angry. When I was told later that she had just stopped breathing, I could rejoice because my goodbye was no longer reluctant. I wanted what was best for her.

Christ's ascension is the statement that the best is not here. Even as we would look for, Christ, our search will lead us to the Resurrection.
Christ had the right to go where his happiness is. A tearful goodbye expresses the need for the other to stay. 'The Ascension fulfills Christ's need to be with the Father. We can want one we love to stay or go with us. Christ would send the Spirit so we would understand how to be his love. We would need to share Christ with those we love before we would go to be with Christ. The need to go and the need to take others with us would always be the tension of goodbye.
While visiting my spiritual director, who was in a coma, I expressed to others my desire to pray over him because I did not want to let him go.
A week or so later when he was home from the hospital, he described what he had experienced. He told me it was like being down a huge tunnel and hearing a voice calling: "I need you. Come back." My need for him was selfish and not as great as his need for heaven. The next time I would not ask him to come back. I had said my goodbyes.

The Apostles by the intensity of their gaze had asked Christ to stay with them. They would have held on to him physically. Christ was free to go because he could leave behind the gift of himself. Even as Christ gave the Apostles the command to go into the whole world and claim the world for him through Baptism, he gave the promise of being with them until the end of time. Are we really willing to claim the promise of the goodbye of Christ? What does it mean to claim that promise? The paradox of Christianity is that although dying implies going, the going in Christ implies the staying.

We all make attempts at developing a way of experiencing God's presence. As young Religious we were told to make acts of the Presence of God. They were just words we said in the beginning of our spiritual life. One- liners, calling out the name of Jesus, asking mercy, were more frequently acts of the mind than cries of the heart. "Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me'' supposed that Jesus could hear and was close.
Today, hopefully, those Acts of the Presence of Christ express the reality of our hearts being present to this God of ours. Christ's presence should mean as much as the presence of the brothers and sisters whom we can touch. The years spent as religious speak a life dedicated to the presence of our Lord. Now we should be capable of recognizing his presence in each other and in our world.
There is no fundamental difference between the presence of the Lord in a newly baptized baby and any one of the mystics of the Church. The love of God reaches out to the good and the bad alike; reaches all of us equally. This is an important insight for our spiritual journey. The devil has the same presence of God's love in Christ as we do. We should all look for the humanness of Christ in each other. How can we love the God we do not see, if we do not love the neighbor we do see? At some point, the potential of the presence is the same for all of us. The difference lies in the degree of the heart's acknowledgment and response to the presence. How much love do we give? Does the presence stay in the head or does in reach our hearts? God's love makes the world go around.
Our hearts can respond to God's love in any moment of our lives.
Spirituality finds the presence of our Lord by seeing through the disguise of the stranger who comes into our lives. The doors of our hearts will be open and then the Christ of our hearts, the Lord of our hearts, will be free to come forth in all we say and do.
This "Omega" of our faith, the Ascension, is really the beginning of the marvelous journey into a self-realization of a Mystery of God. The call to become Divine is, by virtue of our own rising to the new life, our being able to live in the presence of God in the now of our life. It carries with it the promise of the resurrection. The ascension allows us to see, but not clearly. Our own resurrection will allow us to see with the fullness of love. We will see and hear what cannot even be imagined now because it is so much more than what is suggested by the ascension.
The realization that we are made for another world is part of the ascension grace. It is years of living in the presence of God, and the degree of awareness of that presence which claims our hearts bringing the anticipation of our own resurrection.
Our response to the ascension will be seen in the fullness of our living the mandate of the ascension. Christ passed on the job he had received from the Father. We have to continue his work where he left off if we are going to live up to our baptism. This is what subsidiarity is all about. The work of the Church will be finished when the entire world belongs to Christ. If we have not done all that we had hoped to do, it is still possible to pass on the responsibility of our charisms. It is here that the Mystery of ascension gives rise to the Church. The Angels query to the Apostles: "...Why stand you here idle?"(Acts 1:10) should have been followed by: "...Go forth and teach all nations...! (Matthew 28:20) For so many years, spirituality was a turning in, without the going out. There was and is an acknowledgment of God and the Savior. Our lives were so private we did not really have to announce the good news of the Christ within us. This Christ life, which is the truth of who we are in this new life, gives rise to the responsibility of fulfilling the mandate to "Go forth!"

In Baptism, our initiation rite, the mandate to go forth is instilled in each of us. The literal meaning of baptism is discoverable in the branding of slaves by the Romans. Slaves were marked on their forehead with the sign of the Roman family to whom they belonged. We are branded with the cross of Christ in our baptism. We are claimed and owned by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity comes to make their home within us, and the Mystery of Indwelling takes place. We become Temples of the Holy Spirit. Letting Christ out to the world has its counterpoint in the Indwelling, which flows out of baptism. We are created in the image and likeness of God. Our Christ life from baptism is what we must let out of ourselves to counterbalance Christ's going from 'the world in the ascension. This is expressed by making Christ present in the world by our lives, and by claiming where we are for his dwelling.

Vatican II speaks of the Church as "The People of God." In the Decree on the Laity, the laity is given the responsibility to baptize the world with the presence of Christ. They have to go where the Church has not yet been. The power to make Christ present flows out of the presence of Christ in their lives, which comes with baptism. The vows of Religious have been spoken of as a second baptism. They are seen today as a public commitment to live out the fullness of the baptismal promises.
Religious, in a sense, commit themselves to be professional holy people, attempting to make the world holy by the intensity of their Christ life.
The external signs of this life are the poverty, chastity and obedience, which show a genuine desire to live the same life as Christ. The vows single people out, when they are perpetual, because fewer people in this world of ours are willing to make a permanent commitment. Love is forever, and the promise to stay with Christ and to go where he would go is more perfectly stated in the commitment to live his life. These signs give the world the right to count on Religious to witness to Christ in every environment both favorable and unfavorable. Christ has a claim on every dimension of the life of a religious, and the consecration, which used to be considered a separation from the world, puts on the Religious the tremendous responsibility of making the world holy by sharing the intensity of the Christ life.
The ascension of our Lord has long been looked upon as a statement that the final act is finished, the curtain has been drawn, it is over and the torch has been passed on. But the reality of the ascension, the statement that it is all right to begin again, says that Christ believes that we are now ready to be his presence in the world in which we live.
It is our responsibility to reenter our world and claim it for Christ, and to share his love. We know that he came to claim us as brothers and sisters. The promise of Christ to stay, even as he goes, fills us with peace. We stand on the hill of the ascension and see Christ whom we love going off without us. He wants to take us and we want to go. The ascension recalls the difficulty Christ had in leaving us behind. It accentuates our desire to go with him. Christ had already said he must go but would send the Spirit. The Spirit of Truth would tell us all we need to know. Christ had said it all, but we did not understand. The Angel comes to ask why we are standing idle.
How many times have we missed the point of the question when we read the statement of the idleness of the Apostles? We did not understand those men who locked themselves in the upper room for fear of the Jews.
They loved Christ so much that without him they felt they had nothing to give, let alone, to live for. The Spirit would have to come before the Apostles would have the necessary courage to go out and share with the world the Good News of salvation. But at that moment they were just watching him go. For the rest of their lives the Apostles would feel the weight of sorrow that held them back as they reached out for him. The ascension is a mystery that we relive again and again in the after prayer periods of our lives. We trace his presence on our souls by meditations. He traces his love in us in the moments of contemplation when he lifts us up into himself. We have the sense to cherish those moments of our soul's contentment when he seems so close. But all too quickly the contemplative moment is gone. We find ourselves staring off into the distance at the ascension. Each moment of grace takes our hearts up into the heavens. Our prayer soars and the beauty of going off into prayer is the reminder that we are made for another world. As much as we want to go with him, and as hard as we try to hold onto his love, he goes off and leaves us with a task to be done for the sake of his love. The desire to hold on to prayer can be for us what the ascension was for the Apostles.
We want to go with him, but it is not up to us to pick the hour and the way. We expect him to come soon, so we go on with our work. We want to be ready when he comes again, so we look for his presence in all that is happening around us. The reality of going with him is what the Church is all about. We go with him by living the reality of his presence in the Church. In the ascension, he leaves one place, so that he might be in every place. He promised his presence in us, and we honor it by making him present to others. He calls us to go into the whole world and claim the world as the possession of the Trinity. Christ wants to go with us.
Baptism and his ascension make it possible.
The ascension IS like a curtain closing so that the stage may be set for the next act, and this act is ours. Where we step out in his name, we give him a foothold in our world. Where he has stepped in the ascension gives us a foothold in heaven. Two steps, one in each direction, allow us to cross the Grand Canyon that separates time and eternity. Christ had to go so that he could humanly be in the many parts of the world where we would make him present through the sharing of baptism. Two worlds would be joined by a love not limited by the goodbye of the ascension. Every Nativity, the Alpha of our Faith, has a date with the Ascension, the Omega of our Faith. Every going has the implications of staying. Ascension is not the last breath of Christ's Resurrection, but the first breath of our Resurrection as he sends the Spirit to make us his love to the World we claim for the Father.

You could only have gone, Lord, if you knew that you would live in the poverty and brokenness of the least ones who would come into our hearts.
It is a powerful question you asked of Paul on the road to Damascus:
"Why are you persecuting me?"(Acts 9:4) It is the question of every relationship of our lives. How can we love the God we do not see if we do not love the neighbor we do see? How true it is that in the ascension you have become the stranger of our lives. You are gone and we can only find you now as those strangers. How can we reach out to one we do not know how to love? Lord, let us see you in everyone whom you love, because we know that you become one with the one you love. Your love does not know the limitation of distance. You are with us still in the love that will not let us go it alone. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your promise to remain with us.
We hear the question of the Angels: "Why do you stand here idle?" We do not yet understand fully. We need to know what it means to be about the mission we share from you of being about your Father's business. You are such a lover that you would be our love for each other. Help us, Lord, to bridge the gap that is the ascension, and be the power of the ascension in the lives of our brothers and sisters. Help us to do this by sharing the love you have left behind in our hearts; we can only keep you, Lord, by giving you away.

Lord, help us to be an uplifting experience for all of our brothers and sisters so that we may be drawn together in the wake of your going. Help us to find the way to the realization of the Resurrection in our own lives. Lord, strengthen our belief in the Resurrection. Help us accept your ascension as the beginning of our mission. Let us share the promises of your love to our world. Let your goodbye be our hello to the mission of sharing the love of your heart with our world. Let us be strengthened by the coming of the Spirit. Help us to appreciate the Ascension as the nativity of everlasting life.

No comments: