By Denise Trull
This beautiful feast of the Ascension is one I have come to call my reticent Solemnity. It is a feast that has revealed to me the pathos that often accompanies praise. A revelation that we may praise, and mightily, yet still have a face filled with tears; tears that are very much a vital part of what it means to praise.
It is a glorious day in every way. Heaven is opening to receive the Victor. The empty throne at last holds the Beloved of the Father--the King, the Lion of Judah. The liturgy drips with the honeyed joy of it. Everything is fantastical and magnificent. Jesus rides upon clouds, beautiful to behold; He goes up to the sound of trumpets. Our hearts erupt with the solemn joy of it--how can they not--as Jesus falls at last into the arms of His beloved Father crying: “Father! It is accomplished!” And then, silence. Heaven enfolded in clouds once again, and that sudden feel of familiar human weight upon the earth without him. There must have been twelve aching hearts staring helplessly to the skies and at each other with one silent plea for answer: what now?
For forty days, Jesus has prepared the apostles for this day. Weaning them away from his physical presence a little at a time. Of all the mercies I hold to my heart, it is the mercy of those forty days. It is Jesus waiting gently for us to realize it is not as it was before. He cannot rise to glory unless we loosen the human grasp and let Him rise. In this is the pathos.
It is very much like sending a son to college and he returns older and not the same as he was before. You still truly have him, it is still a comfort to your mother's heart that he is home and you can cook for him, talk late into the night with him, laugh with him. But you know he is not home--not really--and life must change now. Part of him is somewhere else--the place his own life will be journeying to--the reason he has been born. You took him from the hand of God. You consented to hold and nurture him for a time, to find joy in him, to hold him to your heart in intimate mother love. But you also consented the very minute you laid eyes on his newborn sweetness--that he was not to be your own. He was God’s. A mother’s fiat is a fierce courage--to love a child more than you could have imagined loving, and then being asked to let him go. God goes gently with us--he asks the gift slowly but surely, but he does ask.
He gives each of us those blessed, merciful summers between the college years that lead gently to the letting go of what went before. You don't talk about it much. You try to make things exactly as they were before that child entered the outside world--walking slowly away from you. You might even play tricks on your mind that no, see, it is still the same, things haven’t changed. It can always be as it has been. You try to re-create sweet scenarios of the old days. See, here we are in the same living room we have always sat in and here we are with each other talking - you drinking from your favorite mug, me slicing your favorite banana bread. You almost will it to be the same--with a bit of a desperate, but understandable hold. But it can't. You know it...you do. He is gone already. That part of mothering is over. You mourn it, because it will not return. Another mothering will now have room to grow--for being a mother never ends. It just had to wait until you accepted the loss of one phase to take up the next.
It doesn't mean he doesn't love you anymore. If anything, he loves you more. He is becoming the man you always wanted him to be. All your schooling of him, loving him through sicknesses, protecting him from harm. All the wisdom about life you tried to cram into his head hoping it was enough. He stands before you now, this beautiful, emerging new son, who still and always will be that same son you always knew, but different. He will love you by living as a good man in the wider world—a man who will bring love to and receive the love of others. And the world will be better for him. Yet, he cannot rise, if you do not let go—let him become bigger than your world can hold. He is like one who must shed the old skin that is too small now. And you must consent to be shed. It is not for the faint of heart, motherhood. There is always pathos in its praise.
It seems to me this is what Jesus is about in these forty days. He is trying very tenderly but emphatically to get the apostles to see that though he is with them now somewhat as before, there was, in fact, a Resurrection and He is not the same. He treats them gently. He lets it dawn on them quietly. They all know it. How can they not? He was dead. Now has risen. It has changed but He has become what He told them He would become--how can they not rejoice. They just thought they might have had more time with Him on earth in the old easy way they had come to love and depend upon.
They walk and talk together. They have breakfast and cook fish. He physically claps them on a shoulder or patiently lets the women hold his hands because that is what women want to do when they find good-byes imminent. They sit by campfires. They laugh, they talk in the old familiar way. They sail on the sea. But there are moments of sudden silence that say: all seems the same, but now is different.
Then inevitably the last day comes. The great good-bye that bursts the shell of mortality. He is large, magnificent and too big for this fallen world to hold—He is what He was born to become. They will never be the apostles they were before he died. They will never quite know him that way anymore. For now they know the truth of it all. They will need to step into the new man he has called each to be. They are filled with wonder and praise and pathos.
Good-byes are hard. They stare up a little too long at the clouds with tears. It takes an angel to say it is time for them to move on and become who they also were meant to be now. Sons and brothers of the living God. No longer slaves, no longer mere fishermen, scribes, tax collectors, or even half puzzled followers but FRIENDS of the Immortal Son. It is not for the faint of heart, being such a friend.
It is worth the shedding of old familiar ways--to stand in anticipation of the new world that is to come riding high on the clouds. Jesus waited patiently for this day and traveled down to it with his apostles every step of the way--up until the very end when He knew they were ready to let Him go. Did he reach out and wipe their tears away before He rose? I think He did. Softly did he whisper, “I go to prepare a place for you. I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” Then He was taken from their sight.
Off He went upon the clouds to return one day exactly as he had come, leaving the world in the hands of his friends who now turned to go out with his good news to all the world. All was the same but now so different. They shouldered this new fiat and descended the mountain, knowing there can be a holy pathos that lifts its voice in praise. It is one of the greatest gifts we can give to God--this praise in surrender that gives birth to glorious things. He gives us the feast of the Ascension to always remind us.