How Do We See Jesus?

Ascension of the Lord

 Fr. Raymond Lafontaine  May 28, 2017

In his beautiful “Sonnet for Ascension Day”, poet Malcolm Guite proclaims:

We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven's story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we ourselves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed.

We celebrate today the Ascension of the Lord.  It is a fascinating feast, full of paradoxes: a leave-taking that prepares us for an arrival, an absence necessary to reveal a fuller and deeper presence.  Jesus had already told his friends that it was necessary that he should go away, so that the promised Spirit could come, and lead them to a deeper and fuller truth. Contained in his farewell discourse, located by St. John on the evening of the Last Supper, it was a message intended to console, to comfort, to strengthen them for the trials to come. 

Then in a flash, everything changed.  The story is familiar enough – Jesus’ struggle in Gethsemane, his arrest, his betrayal, denial and abandonment by those who were his closest friends and companions, the Twelve.  And then his imprisonment and trial, torture and death.  All seemed lost.  The Jesus these men and women had come to know and love, who had known and loved them in a unique and all-embracing way, was no longer there.  The grief, the sense of absence, the separation must have been excruciating for the disciples of Jesus.  Perhaps very much the way we feel when we lose someone who has been “our other half” – be they spouse or parent, sibling or child, mentor or best friend.

To lose someone we love deeply is a painful thing indeed.  Even when we firmly believe in the promise of Jesus expressed by the Creed as “the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting”, we miss them, feel their absence sharply.  And yet, every so often – through a word, a memory, a familiar sight or sound or smell, we feel their presence keenly. 

{It was my birthday last Monday, and after dinner with my siblings at a local Chinese dumpling place, we went back to my brother’s house for cake and coffee.  My sister-in-law Carolyn made a Wacky Cake.  I don’t need to give you the recipe, but it was the cake that my mother always made for our birthdays when we were growing up.  If the disciples recognized the presence of the Risen Lord “in the breaking of the bread,” we experienced the presence of our mother “in the baking of the cake”.  (And its eating!)}   

How do we see Jesus?  When Jesus walked this earth and lived among us, the answer was easy.  But after the Resurrection, things became different.  In today’s reading from Acts, the disciples are asked, “Why do you stand here, looking up into the sky?”  The implication is clear: you’re not going to see Jesus in THAT way anymore. Paul invites us in today’s second reading to do something different: to “open the eyes of our heart.”  This is more than merely physical vision: the eye of the flesh.  It involves more than our intelligence and insight: the eye of the mind. It is an invitation to faith: the knowledge of the heart, the vision born of love – Incarnate, Divine Love.  

After his Resurrection, and even more so, after his Ascension, Jesus is no longer present in the same way. Think of those Gospels we have been reading through the Easter season: Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the apostles out fishing. 

In the midst of an ordinary activity, there is an encounter, a flash of recognition – and then just as quickly, Jesus seems to be gone.  There’s no use trying to make it happen, or once it does happen, cling to it.  But it is unmistakably real.  It is presence … but in a different form. 

At the Last Supper, Jesus left his disciples two important ways in which he wanted his self-gift to be remembered: in humble, foot-washing service, and in bread broken and shared, wine poured out in love.  Whenever we break the bread and share the cup in his name, whenever we serve him in the poor and vulnerable of this world, Jesus continues to pour his life into us, and to the world through us.  Jesus' new way of being present to the world is now through the Church, through the members of his Mystical Body, through the Spirit-filled community of his followers who gather and celebrate in his Name.  And the world needs us, is counting on us, to continue to bear witness to the One who promised: “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of time.” 

In the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods, a woman comforts a child who has just lost her mother with a song entitled “No One Is Alone”:

Mother cannot guide you. Now you're on your own.
Only me beside you.  Still, you're not alone.
No one is alone. Truly.  No one is alone. (…)
Mother isn't here now, Who knows what she'd say?
Nothing’s quite so clear now. Feel you've lost your way?
You are not alone. No one is alone.
Hard to see the light now.  Just don't let it go.
Things will come out right now. We can make it so.
Someone is on your side, No one is alone.

At the separation of death, to feel the loss, the pain, the sorrow is natural and normal.  We cry, we grieve, we complain, we wonder “why?”, we ask questions.   But ultimately, we go on.  We have no choice but to go on.  But hopefully, we go on hearing our God say to us: “You are not alone.” Our faith is a Resurrection faith, an Ascension faith, a Pentecost faith. We do our loved ones no favours by enshrining their memory in a cemetery, burying our own hopes and joys in the grave with them.  Jesus desires for them for us, for all of his children, life in abundance.  It is ours to embrace.    

There is a beautiful line in that Ascension Day sonnet that struck me in a particular way: 

We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things.

Luke tells us that the disciples returned to Jerusalem after the Ascension not depressed and downcast, but “with great joy”. Where was that joy coming from?  Yes, joy in the promise of the coming Spirit, and in Jesus’ own promise to return in glory at the end of time; but also, joy that in his Ascension, Jesus takes us to the Father’s heart, makes us and the lives we live here on this earth a precious “part of heaven’s story.”  Henceforth, there is no separation between the sacred and the profane, our natural life and our spiritual life.  Christ reconciles all these polarities, drawing us to the “heart of things”. 

There is so much more one could say, but words fail to capture it.  Death is the great transition, and in spite of all we know and understand, it’s still a mystery.  This is hard for us to see.  It is especially hard to see when the eyes of the flesh are clouded with tears of grief and sadness, when the eyes of the mind are clouded by despair and our inability to understand.  It is only with the eyes of the soul and the heart, that such a vision becomes possible. 

So as we celebrate Eucharist together, as we recognize the risen Jesus in the breaking of the bread, let us ask the Lord to give us that vision we need.  In this way, whatever transition we happen to be in, whatever death, whatever letting go, we will be empowered to embrace the new presence which awaits us, the gift of his Spirit.  God's plans for us are plans of fullness, not of harm; God wants to give us a future full of hope.  God desires to pour his Spirit into us – right here, right now.  As we prepare for a new Pentecost, may God grant us “a spirit of wisdom and knowledge, and open the eyes of our hearts, that we may see the hope to which he has called us.”  May we be joyful and credible witnesses of Christ, our Crucified, Risen, and Ascended Lord, who came “that we might have life, and have it to the full.”