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Finding Ascension in a Sunset

To be honest, the meaning and significance of the Ascension is no small mystery to me. I have been known to muddle the name of today’s major feast with other liturgical celebrations beginning with the letter “A.” If you think about it, the Ascension, the Assumption, and the Annunciation not only sound alike, they also all have something to do with the movement and link between our world and the realm of heaven. 

Centuries of artistic representations of the Ascension typically give us some version of Jesus floating away on a fluffy cloud. The imagery can be a little comic, even Monty-Python-esque. I once helped lead a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, England. In the shrine’s Chapel of the Ascension, there is a ceiling sculpture depicting a pair of rather pale and flaccid feet dangling below a ring of silvery clouds. Saintly golden light beams appear to be radiating down from Our Lord’s vanishing toes. Whether or not the artist was intending playful whimsy in their work, I could not contain my giggles the first time I looked up and saw this particular interpretation of the Ascension.   

While I endeavor to welcome the tonic of laughter and humor into my prayer life and spirituality, I’m not saying the Ascension is a joke. The mystery that is the Ascension is a major waypoint in the journey of faith expressed through the liturgical calendar of the church. It makes a bold and unambiguous appearance in the story told by our creeds. It even has its own, not insignificant section in our hymnal, between Easter and Pentecost. 

So, I wonder, in what ways does Jesus’ Ascension into heaven resonate for you and for me? Why does the church mark it with great importance? What did it mean to the disciples? What is the continuing significance of the Ascension for Jesus? 

With the exception of the longer ending to the Mark’s Gospel, the Ascension story is exclusive to Luke’s domain – scholars typically agree that Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles share common authorship. In today’s gospel reading from Luke, we learn that the tone of the Ascension is one of “great joy” and celebration. This mood, coupled with the blessing of the moment stayed with the disciples as they returned to Jerusalem, where they were “continually in the temple blessing God.”

What fills the disciples with such confident thanksgiving and delight? First, we know that the tremendous gift and significance of blessing was perhaps better understood in ancient times than it is today. A blessing was more than words, it was efficacious. It was sought, given, or withheld to great consequence. It was the bond and promise that undergirded the thriving of human relationships. The disciples were brimming with their Lord and teacher’s blessing to the extent it could not be contained. 

Second, Luke tells us that Jesus didn’t bless the disciples and then depart from them. Rather, he was carried up to heaven “while he was blessing them.” In a very real sense, one gift of the Ascension is the ongoing and eternal blessing it bestows on all who are beloved of Christ (and all are beloved of Christ). 

The relationship between God incarnate and God’s creation was forever elevated to the highest level two thousand years ago on a slightly cloudy day in Bethany. Having come into the world, the Christ is now returned to the right-hand of the Godhead, completing a full and prophetic circle. And the majesty of the mystery is that Christ doesn’t leave his humanity at the gate of heaven. In ascending to his Father he brings his humanity, and by extension, yours and mine, into full relationship with God. 

Thomas Merton said, “This is the grace of Ascension Day: to be taken up into the heaven of our own souls, the point of immediate contact with God.” Merton understood what the white-robed men did in the Ascension account from Acts, when they said to the disciples, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Jesus didn’t “go away” from us to some elevated celestial realm. He isn’t now “out there” in a way that relates to the limits of our dimensional awareness. United with the Godhead, Christ is ascended in our hearts, where we, like the disciples before us, are called to extend Christ’s abundant, overflowing blessing as his body here on earth. 

I sometimes have to remind myself that describing spiritual and theological ideas are almost poetic exercises. The Ascension is for me another metaphor in our human endeavor to clothe our experiences of the divine in language and story. This by no means denies the miracle and reality at the heart of the Ascension, but by acknowledging the limits of language, it liberates a profound and generative truth from, well, the limits of language. 

I’d like to close with a story, a memory, really, that has only just begun to unfurl the strange and beautiful truth of the Ascension for me. Perhaps it will spark a memory or experience of your own that will draw you into the ascended and ever ascending mystery of Christ’s boundless love. 

My family spent a few days with my Norwegian grandfather – Grandpa Dyrnes I called him – at the Resort at Semiahmoo up by Bellingham a few days before he died. I have an achingly vivid memory of my skinny 14-year-old self pushing him in a wheelchair out to the edge of a dock with the rest of the family. Others wanted to share this privileged duty, but painfully aware he was dying, I wasn’t ready to release anything to do with him. Everyone from family to strangers adored him, but this was my best friend and hero. This is someone the gift of time and formation has helped me understand as my foremost spiritual ancestor, and a model of the kind of gentle, generous, loving human I can only aspire to be. 

The sunset that night was glorious — gold, pink, and apricot saturated the sky with a fierce and silent beauty. As the fiery late summer sun slowly set across Semiahmoo Bay and the Strait of Georgia, I noticed tears in my grandpa’s eyes. I think there were tears in all our eyes, but the look in his eyes was different. We were grieving, but he was utterly content. He was in incredible pain from late-stage cancer, but that night, I could tell he was at peace. “This is the last sunset I’ll ever see,” he said quietly. We stayed with him for a very long time, faces lifted to the horizon, looking at that sunset, surrendering to the moment, or in my case, trying to. He didn’t say much more than that, but he was right. He died a few days later.

While my heart was glad to see my grandpa enjoying a reprieve from pain and suffering, my younger self also struggled to understand how he could be so placid about leaving us – leaving me. For over 30 years, this memory has been bittersweet, tinged with pangs of fear, loss, and yes, perceived rejection.  

I can now see that my grandpa was experiencing the powerful blessing of the Ascended Christ as he prepared to move on from this world. I have no ability to articulate what happens after death, but I know the hope and promise of our Christian faith when I see it, feel it, touch it, remember it. That Jesus was both risen and ascended in my grandpa’s heart was a vivid and inspiring truth to all who knew him while he was alive. In the thin, threshold space of the sunset at Semiahmoo 31 years ago, Christ was preparing to welcome my grandpa into a full and holy union with God. 

For me, the gift of the Ascension is that I can now recognize the places where it shows up in my life, past, present, and with faith, future. The promise of the Ascension is that my seasons of grief, loss, and longing, while holy and necessary in their own right, are not the end of the story. The blessing of the Ascended Christ continues to flow through time and space, even out of the potent gift of a vulnerable personal memory. The invitation of the Ascension is to see and engage the world with the eyes and mind of Christ. 

In the words attributed to Theresa of Avila, “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.”

Embodying this truth, I believe, is how we, like the disciples after the Ascension, now enter the world with great joy, “and are continually in the temple blessing God.”