Solemnity of the Ascension – May 11/12, 2013
For the communities of Dignity/NoVA at Emmanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Arlington, VA and Dignity/Washington at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.
As I was thinking about this day’s celebration of the Solemnity of the Ascension, I came across something by theologian Fr. Ron Rolheiser. In commenting that most of us don’t really understand what the Ascension is all about, he said this: “The Ascension names and highlights a paradox that lies deep at the center of life, namely, [there are times in life when] … we can only give our presence more deeply by going away so that others can receive the full blessing of our spirits.” … At times we can only give our presence more deeply by going away.
I suppose the bumper-sticker version of a part of this insight is, ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ … but I think this insight is more profound than that. It reminds us first of all that from the very beginning to the very end of every human life … life is filled with transitions and experiences of moving on and letting go. That is, after all, the essence of growth. Every life and every relationship is filled with beginnings and endings and new beginnings after that. Every human experience is filled with the “interplay of life and death, of presence and absence, of love and of loss.”
In celebrating the Ascension today, we hear two accounts from the same biblical source – accounts that exemplify that interplay of endings and beginnings. First, we hear the opening words of the Acts of the Apostles in which two mysterious figures ask the Apostles, “Why are you standing there looking up into the sky?” And then, in Luke, we hear the very last words of that Gospel which presents a very similar scene. Luke presents the Ascension as occurring on the same day as the Resurrection and the Easter appearances of Jesus to his disciples. The Resurrection and the Ascension are different facets of that same reality which is the core of our Christian belief. That reality is this: In Jesus the Christ, the experiences of pain, suffering, separation and even death itself are transformed into joy and happiness and unending new life.
This transformation is not unlike so many other transformations and experiences occurring all the time and throughout our lives:
- It’s the experience of a child going to school for the first time, even as his parents with reluctance let go of his hand on that very first day;
- It’s the experience of removing those training wheels from a child’s bike – cautiously running after her as she wobbles from side to side and eventually finds her stride;
- It’s the experience of saying “Yes” to one person in a loving and committed relationship, even though this also means saying “No” to all others and to letting go a former way of life;
- It’s the experience of students who – having embraced the challenges of learning, of study, and intellectual growth – come to the end of either one academic year or academic career – and face the prospects of a new world of work or even more advanced academic challenges;
- It’s the experience whenever we close one chapter of life – with all the mixed feelings and emotions that closing might bring – and begin to write a new chapter that might lead in directions we can only imagine.
Letting go and moving on isn’t always easy – but it’s something we know we must all do, from time to time, if we are to remain alive. The Ascension of Jesus – his “letting go” of this world – reminds us as disciples of something else we must be careful not to overlook. The disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ Resurrection from the Dead and Ascension into Heaven was primarily not sadness that he was no longer with them, but it was marked by joy because they knew the opposite was true. They knew that instead of Absence, they experienced a New Presence. This Presence of God’s Spirit deep within was an empowering Presence and an energizing Spirit Who would give them what they needed to do the work that had yet to be done. They knew that the Presence of Jesus would strengthen them not just to Believe, but also to Act. They would be strengthened to preach the Good News, to feed the hungry, to comfort those in need, and to seek a world marked less by selfishness and self-centeredness and more by charity, justice, and a way of seeing that recognizes the Face of God in every human person.
It’s been quite some time since I had a dog. The last dog I had was an Old English Sheepdog named Sophie. Although the history of the breed isn’t perfectly clear, it’s likely that the breed developed in Southwestern England sometime in the early 19th century. They were bred as working dogs … helping farmers to drive their herds of sheep and cattle to market. Being a good urban dog owner far removed from farms and fields, I was always very careful to keep Sophie on a leash when we went for our walks, keeping her close by my side. When Sophie was about three years old, a neighbor of ours on Capitol Hill got a puppy, and so one day we took the two dogs to a park on the Hill. The park was fairly large and on this particular day there was no one else around or even very little traffic, so we let both dogs off leash for a little exercise. As you can imagine … as youngsters of any species tend to do … the puppy began to run around exploring all the new sights and smells and sounds of the park. What fascinated me most, however, was what Sophie did. She ran and played with the pup, to be sure … but whenever he would run off too far, or get too close to the street, she would do an end-run around him and bring him back to the center. He would then run to the other side of the park, heading toward the street and the park’s edge on the opposite side. And Sophie would do the same thing … running after him, getting between him and the street, causing him to turn around and head back once again. It was fascinating to see! Never before had I seen her do what appeared to be an innate, natural behavior … this herding instinct that kept both her and puppy close by at all times, even while allowing themselves the freedom the run and play. From that memorable experience, I learned an important lesson: Only by letting her go … even in this small way … was I able to see her actually be who she was meant to be and do what she was meant to do.
The Ascension is a celebration of faith – but it is less a celebration of our faith in God as it is a celebration of God’s faith in us. Jesus’ departure from this world is an expression of His belief that the work entrusted to His followers will not end with His moving on and letting go. No, it is a declaration that His work will continue through the words and deeds of His followers – words and deeds which must continue to transform the world. As his disciples – and especially as his LGBT disciples with the particular mission that we have both to society and to the Church – it remains our work to go into that world and to bring the Good News to all creation. We are called to be the voice and hands of Jesus. We are called to relieve the sufferings of those in need; we are called to be instruments of peace and not of war; we are called to respond to violence with non-violence; to promote understanding in the face of ignorance, and in the presence of hate – including hatred for who we are as gay and lesbian children of God – even there we are called to be bearers of God’s love for all. As followers of Jesus, let’s make sure that are not caught staring up into the sky; let us be about the work that Jesus has entrusted to our care.