This Sunday we celebrate the Ascension, when Jesus left this world for his heavenly home. It’s an interesting topic to preach about. To me, there are two central themes in today’s readings:
1. Preparing to receive the Holy Spirit
2. Going forth to live the gospel in our lives
We hear about this in our first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:1-11). Just before Jesus ascends into heaven, he tells his followers that he wants them to “be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.” This is the last thing he says to his apostles, and after he ascends into heaven his followers are left gawking at the sky wondering, what next? Two men in white robes (angels) appear to them and remind them that Jesus will return again just as he left and, in the mean time, they have some work to do – to live out the mission Jesus has given them.
In the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:15-20), we hear a similar call for the apostles to “proclaim the gospel to every creature.” And then, again, Jesus leaves his followers and ascends into heaven.
So what does this word “ascension” mean to us. In part, it refers to a time of transition. We are transitioning out of the Easter Season and will soon celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. All of this prepares us to live the gospel message Jesus has called us to – to proclaim the Good News of Christ.
The Paschal Cycles of our Life
We experience many transitions in our lives. Ronald Rohlheiser, in his book, “The Holy Longing” describes these transitions as the paschal cycles of our life – our Good Fridays, our Easter Sundays, our 40 Days of Easter, our Ascension and our Pentecost. Each of these cycles may repeat themselves many times in our lives (similar to the fact that we are called to die to self and rise in Christ daily). Rohlheiser describes each of these cycles this way:
- Our Good Fridays are the times we suffer losses in our life. These may be the loss of a loved one, the end of a friendship, the loss of a job, the ending of a period in our lives (like graduation from school). Rohlheiser encourages us to name these deaths and to acknowledge them.
- Our Easter Sundays are when receive new life. This may be a new relationship, a new job, moving from high school to college, or college to professional life. Rohlheiser encourages us to claim these new births as our own.
- Our 40 Days of Easter are the times needed for readjustment and grieving. If you have ever lost a close friend or loved one, you know how difficult this grieving can be. We men find it extremely difficult to lose a job or to retire from a job because this “loss” often signifies the loss of our identity. Rohlhesier encourages us to grieve what we have lost and to adjust to the new reality. Unlike our “Good Fridays” and our “Easter Sundays” (which tend to be single events) this time of grieving and readjustment may be a series of events and may take some time.
- Our Ascension is a time of letting go and letting the past bless you. Rohlheiser encourages us to not cling to the old and allow the past to ascend and give us its blessing.
- Our Pentecost is when we receive a new spirit for a new life we are called to live. Rohlheiser encourages us to accept the spirit of the life that we are in fact now living.
For the Ascension cycles in our lives I suggest we focus on three things:
- Letting go of the old – the things we are clinging to, or the things that are weighing us down and preventing us from moving on
- Letting the past ascend – let it takes its rightful place (in our distant memory)
- Allowing the past to give us a blessing – as we let it go and it ascends
Letting Go of the Old
Remember the readings from Easter Sunday? After it was discovered that Jesus had risen from the tomb, Mary Magdala and the other disciples rushed to the tomb. Mary is overwrought with sadness when she sees that Jesus was gone. Then Jesus appears to Mary and she is ecstatic! But Jesus gives her a word of caution. He says “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” (John 20:17).
What Jesus is telling Mary is “don’t cling to the old.” And the reason we cannot cling to the old is that if we do, we cannot ascend to the Holy Spirit – to embrace what God has planned for us.
Here’s an example of how this plays out in real life: A priest I know has been supporting a group of lay men and women for over 40 years in their small faith community. The men and women are now in the late 70s and early 80s and are no longer able to gather as community and pray. This bothered the community members.
Letting the Past Ascend and Bless Us
The priest suggested that a celebration was in order. He encouraged the community to gather one last time, to honor the past, and to say goodbye. This would allow them to be free of the past and to accept the reality of the present. And he reminded them that just because they were no longer able to gather in community doesn’t mean that they are no longer holy or devoted to Christ. They are now free to approach Jesus in a new way.
Holding on to memories and feelings can be a good thing for us. We learn from our experiences. Distance and time gives us perspective. But holding on to those things that hold us back is not good for us.
A friend shared a vision of this with me one time. He told me to think of all of the garbage I was carrying around with me and picture that garbage in trash bag. That bag would contain all of the anger, guilt, remorse and sadness that I refused to let go. Dragging a bag of garbage is tiresome. It stinks and it holds us back from living the life that God wants for us. My friend reminded me that Jesus is the most beloved trash collector in the world! He loves to take away all of this garbage. All we need to do is ask him!
Sure, it’s not always quite that easy. Sometimes we need to spend time in spiritual or psychological counseling to help let go of the garbage we are clinging to. Sometimes we have to give that garbage over to Christ in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Whatever the method, we just have to ask Jesus and he’ll take away all that keeps us from moving on.
We have look for healthy ways to transition emotionally and spiritually. There is no right way to do this. It may take time, but its worth the investment.
Celebrating the Ascension
So, this week, celebrate the Ascensions in your life. As we prepare for Pentecost I encourage you to:
- Reflect on the bags of stuff you may be clinging to – things that might be keeping you from living the gospel in your life
- Find ways of asking God to help take away and dispose of any garbage in your life
- Ask God to bless you with healthy memories of all the “good things” in your past
- Ask God to open your heart and mind to the new gifts, the new “good things” the Holy Spirit will bring to you in the Pentecost of your life
Prepare yourself to receive a new spirit for the new life you are called to live – “to be God’s witness to the end of the earth!”
Copyright © Daniel R. Donnelly. All Rights Reserved.