In two days, on Thursday, we celebrate the Ascension of Christ. After forty days of mysterious presence with his disciples, the Risen Christ is taken up and a cloud received him out of their sight. I am posting some thoughts a little early, as friends from Oregon are arriving on Thursday, and life will be busy with related doings. The Nashville crew might want to cover their virtual ears, as the following notes are the essence of my homily for Sunday. (The LCC lectionary carries the Ascension readings all the way through to Pentecost.)
In some qabalistic traditions, one finds a teaching about tzimtzum. This is the notion that the Divine somehow withdrew, making a space within itself where a free creation could exist. This can turn into a metaphysical brain-twister, and (IMHO) is better approached simply by living with the image rather than trying to reduce it to philosophical concepts. In the Ascension, we have a similar dynamic. The Divine (in the person of Christ) withdraws, making space among the disciples. In this space, they can discover their freedom, and feel the Spirit blowing among them, forming them into a new creation.
In John’s gospel, as Jesus nears the end of his time with his friends, he blows upon them, telling them to receive the Spirit – just as God blew the Spirit over the waters of chaos at the dawn of time. The freely given Spirit brings forth creation from chaos – in Genesis, in the disorderly band of early followers of Jesus, and in us. As God pulls back, or Jesus withdraws, we find that we are not compelled into the new creation, but are invited, with the graceful freedom that true friends give to one another.
Ascension is an in-between time. Jesus has left, and the Spirit, while promised, is not yet fully come. Friedrich Benesch (1907-1991), who was a priest in the independent Christengemeinschaft, wrote a little book simply titled Ascension (English translation published by Floris Books, 1979). Benesch points out that the clouds – so prominent in the imagery of this festival – are an in-between reality, flowing between heaven and earth, seemingly much more active than the mineral realm and yet not alive in the way that a plant is. While Christ in some sense leaves us at the Ascension, Benesch proposes that in-between places are also where we can find him.
Somehow we can say tentatively: in between stone and plant, where the roots of the forest live and thrust, there the Christ lives; in between stone and plant where the clouds weave, live, and pass away, the Christ being lives. In between plant and animal in the world of the transient, interweaving blossoms, the Christ being weaves. Between earth and man, where the being of man works at the earth and the earth answers the activity of man, in the interaction of the earth’s destiny and the being of man, lives the Christ. (pp.29-30)
Like the disciples on the mount of the Ascension, we gaze into the open, empty, in-between spaces, where we lose Christ, and yet find him again.