What the Feast of the Ascension teaches us about time

Pietro Perugino: Polittico di San Pietro (Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s admit that the angelic question is barbed. It is not so much a question as a veiled command: Let’s get on with it.

Men of Galilee,
why are you standing there looking at the sky? (Acts 1:11)

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The Jesus whom they have known is gone. Try as they might, they cannot bring him back, not that Jesus. They will never again hear him preach, never again eat with him, never again walk with him on the roads of Galilee and Judea. First death claimed him; now, the Ascension. Time has moved on, and so must they.

First death claimed Jesus; now, the Ascension. Time has moved on, and so must they.

Yet the heart is loathe to surrender what it loves, which is why the heart hates time. We find ourselves wishing that some small portion of life and love could surmount, rather than surrender to, time. If I could keep one remnant of my mother’s life, it would be the mornings, admittedly rare, when we sat at her kitchen counter over cups of coffee. Two adults, sharing ideas and offering advice. Both were such blessings. Who could listen more attentively? Whose wisdom could count for more?

Doesn’t everyone who mourns wish to barter with time? If you must take my loved one, leave me one cup of coffee, one phone call, one meal, just once in awhile? But time does not trade with us. We have nothing to offer; it moves on, relentless.

Doesn’t everyone who mourns wish to barter with time?

Yet, when the disciples lowered their eyes from heaven to earth, they realized that they had not been left alone. Jesus was gone, but a presence remained. It would take time before they would refer to this companionship as the Holy Spirit. This Spirit would make possible—would make real—that deep desire of the human heart for one more cup of coffee, one more meal, one more phone call, once in awhile. It was the Holy Spirit who would quicken the ritual meal that Christ left us. In the liturgy, love surmounts time.

Here’s what happened. First, the disciples came to perceive that Jesus was among them whenever they were with each other. His presence was more than that of a wake’s comfort, when the memory of the lost one lives large as long as the mourners remain together. No, an active agent, a presence, seemed to be summoning them together, giving them mission and identity. They felt it when they were alone and then found themselves rushing to share it with the others.

When the disciples lowered their eyes from heaven to earth, they realized that they had not been left alone.

Secondly, it was this Spirit who gave the disciples to understand that Jesus had passed over from flesh and blood, which were assumed into heaven, into sacrament, come down to earth when they gathered for the meal. The Greek word for sacrament, mysterion, can also be translated as mystery. What first they called “Breaking the Bread” quickly became known as Holy Communion because in this meal they communed with Jesus and with each other.

Wakes are a comfort in the days immediately following a death. They would become jejune and morbid if we tried to keep them going. But “baptism into his death” and “drinking the cup of his blood” weren’t a way for the disciples of Jesus to deny the passage of time. They were his way of accompanying his chosen ones through time.

Out of the sacraments came the need to tell the story. The longer they remained a community, they longer they shared a holy communion, the more they came to understand who had been in their midst, who remained in their midst, and how he had carried their very humanity with him into God. Yet sacraments could journey safely through time, unadulterated, only if they were accompanied by Scripture, by the living record and reflection of the community.

Community, sacrament and Scripture: by means of these three mysteries Christ and his church would defy time. And, in doing so, these mysteries showed themselves to be imbued with the divine, with the Holy Spirit, because only the creator of time can endlessly recreate in time.

Two millennia later, in the power of the Spirit, in the presence of the Son, we give ourselves over to the Father. Christ has brought our human nature to the right hand of God, but we do not stare up into the heavens. Thanks to those men of Galilee, touched by the Holy Spirit, we find Christ in community, in sacrament and in Scripture.

Readings: Acts 1:1-11 Ephesians 1:17-23 Matthew 28:16-20

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