This past Thursday marked the 40th day after Easter. There was a parking lot full of cars at Christ the King Church on Rt. 7 in Rutland when I drove past late Thursday afternoon on my way to a meeting at Grace Church. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters were at church for the Ascension Day liturgy.
“After [Jesus’] suffering, [we read in Acts], he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”
40 days (again)– as long as it took–to convince them that Death really had not destroyed him, had not ultimately separated him from them, 40 days to give them glimpses of resurrection life and how the power of God to give life was fundamentally different from the power of empire to inflict death.
“It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority [Jesus said to the gathered disciples]. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
Gone again, but this time they seemed to have an assignment, a purpose for living. They were to receive the same power that Jesus had received from God, the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, and then they would be witnesses to that healing, life-giving power in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
In this great, long prayer in John’s gospel, Jesus prays for his disciples who are staying in the world. “Keep them safe,” he prays to God, “make them one, as you and I, Father, are one, I in them and you in me.” Rather than the language of increasing separation, Jesus talks of ever-increasing union and communion. Just as Jesus had experienced God with and within him, so would the disciples–so would we–experience God with and within them, with us and within us.
The traditional image of Jesus’ ascending into heaven has him then seated at the right hand of God Almighty, “from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead,” as the creed says. Over and above. Far off, but having sent a messenger, an intermediary, an intercessor. The Church set itself up in similar fashion–Christ as head, then the bishop or pope as earthly head, then cardinals, priests, ministers over “the people,” the laity. It wasn’t all that different a management model than the Empire used for governance.
But listen to this alternative model or image that early 20th century Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin put forth–
Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.” [cited by Nancy Rockwell, op cit.]
Teilhard –this Jesuit priest who had studied the footprints of evolution–believed that God’s intention was in fact moving evolution toward an “Omega Point,” an ultimate convergence in Christ. “For everything that rises must converge.” We rise to communion, to greater union with God. Eternal life, as Jesus described in his prayer in John, is “to know God.” The late Biblical scholar Walter Wink saw Jesus’ “ascension” as actually his “descent” into the collective unconsciousness of humanity, planting deep within us the archetype of the Fully Human One, which Jesus was. Let that rise from within you.
So what does any of this have to do with the price of beans or bread, as they say? What possible impact might this ancient, fairy-talelike story have on our lives? It has to do with how we imagine God at work in our lives and what we “give worth to,” that is, what we worship. Do we literally spend our lives burrowing down in the ultimate pursuit of money, of power, of success, of some ideal physical form, that sets us apart from others? Maybe above others?
Or do we participate in this rising with Christ, where ultimately we are joined with others and with God? If that is our choice, we will find that we are raised with him from all kinds of death–not only our final death, but also all those “little deaths”–the death of relationships or of dreams, the loss of a job or the loss of our health. Death does not have the final word. Secondly we can leave time and space in our lives for the practices that open us up to the power and presence of God, so that we come together with Christ and with all who, remaining true to the selves whom God created them to be, “move ever upward into greater consciousness and greater love.” Practices like prayer and meditation, worship, devotional reading, working together for justice and healing.
This view of how God works impacts how we view others and the world. As tributes poured in this week upon the death of the great poet Maya Angelou, I couldn’t help but smile at the association of one of her best loved poems with Ascension Day, just one day after her death. That poem is entitled, “Still I Rise”–
You may write me down in history
with your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise. ..
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries? …
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise…
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise. [From The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou, pp. 163-4]
Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.
May we too rise and come together, sharing the bread and the cup, becoming, as we are, one body, of the same blood, converging into Christ, who is our life, our light, our love. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark