I wrote this back on May 15th, but forgot to post it. Here you go:
Yesterday was the Feast of the Ascension, the day many Christian churches remember Jesus’ ascent into heaven forty days after the Resurrection. It always falls on a Thursday, which makes it hard to get folks into church, and it is overshadowed by Pentecost, the feast marking the gift of the Holy Spirit, which follows ten days later. The Ascension is the source of much bad—or maybe just awkward—art. Like this:
Or this surreal one from Salvador Dali:
Or this one, when the camera was snapped just a millisecond too late:
I was to preach yesterday at our mid-week service on campus and as I pondered what to say about this strange little cast-off feast, I realized that, despite triumphalist associations with the day, the Ascension made me sad. The disciples, after meeting Jesus and leaving everything to follow him, have everything ripped from them: not only is the man they have come to love and respect ripped away from them in his arrest and crucifixion, but all of their concepts about the Messiah, about God, about power, are turned upside down, shaken up, and ripped to shreds. They get their friend and Lord back in the Resurrection, but it had to take at least forty days with Him even to begin to process what had just happened, and what it meant for them. And then, after too short a time (just six weeks), he is taken away from them again. And they have to wait, not knowing what was to happen next. (Yes, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, but they couldn’t have any idea of what that meant!)
I am finishing up the 19th Annotation of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, a 30-week retreat with a commitment to 30-45 minutes of daily prayer and a weekly meeting with a spiritual director. It has been a life-changing experience, and I feel like I have come to know Jesus in a deeply personal and vivid way. I’ve been grieving and a little anxious about the end of this structured time, with the accountability that a weekly meeting with a spiritual director provides. I’ve wondered whether I’ll be able to continue to maintain the new habit, and whether Jesus will continue to show up with the wisdom and comfort and challenge that he has provided this past year. I feel like I’m saying goodbye.
It became clear to me that the two situations, for me, are parallel, and that the invitation of both the Ascension and the end of the Spiritual Exercises is to give myself permission to grieve a little the end of a particular experience and to trust that God will provide what I need for the next stage of my discipleship—something deeper, richer, or maybe just different. The gift is permission to resist the change, at least a little, and to mourn it, and the hope is that even those things—the resistance and the grief—will be included and transformed in whatever new thing God offers me next.