When young people graduate from high school or college their worlds begin to change pretty rapidly. Their relationship with their parents begins to shift dramatically or at least it should. There is new freedom. There is increased responsibility. There is new opportunity for them to discover and pursue their purpose in life. It’s an exciting time for young people. They begin to fly in brand new ways. We step back a little and watch them learn to fly. My parents, when I graduated from high school, gave me a set of luggage which sent a pretty clear message. Six months later they moved from South Carolina to New Orleans, sending me another clear message and providing me space to come into my own.
Ascension Day is celebrated 40 days after the Day of Easter and 10 days before the Day of Pentecost, coincidentally around the time many are graduating. Jesus ascends into heaven to reunite with his father. He lived and died among the people. He was raised from the dead and appeared to the people to announce the great promise that death is not the end. And now, with the Ascension, Jesus departs physically but promises always to be with us.
When young people graduate they get shoved into the world, hopefully with lots of love and support, but shoved nonetheless. Now they must venture forth into the world on their own. The hope of every parent is that, on that journey, their beloved children will find their purpose and use their gifts to make the world better. We hope they will deepen and grow. We hope they will come to know who they truly are and learn to share themselves with others. It’s a little sad for parents and their offspring but the excitement typically outshines the sadness. The change is not necessarily easy on the children but their own growth depends on the change.
Similarly Jesus resists the pull of the world to stay. By his departing his followers are empowered in a way we could not have been had Jesus remained in the relationship as it was. Jesus even tells his followers that they will do greater things than he had done. Jesus’ ascension expresses the truth of who Jesus is – the Son of God. It also expresses the truth of who we are – beloved children who have been sent out into the world to live into a great promise. The work before us is twofold: first it is to discover who we have been created to be; next it is to do the work we are called to do. As we discover who we are created to be, the work we are called to do emerges. As we do work we feel called to do, who we are created to be becomes clearer.
The theology of the Ascension is certainly more about the being of God than the being of humanity. The triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit –is an eternal truth. The Ascension becomes our graduation moment, in a way, as it pushes us out into the big world maybe even a little before we are ready to be sent out. God sends us out knowing the journey will be good for us and knowing how our journey will be guided and supported by God’s Spirit.
Graduates don’t learn who they are or what their purpose is immediately. That evolves over time and takes the rest of their lives. Each day, because of that sending out and setting free, they can deepen and grow as maturing adults. As the ascended Christ sends us out and sets us free, we too grow over time. We may think there is a time or an age when we will have it all figured out and might be surprised or even overwhelmed by a sudden growth spurt where everything looks different. We may have a breakthrough which makes all our previous learning seem as if it never even took place. We may suddenly realize we really need to change the way we relate to God and others, even our own selves. We may come across brand new feelings which excite us and frighten us. We may be touched by an experience and may fall in love with God in an unnerving way. There we see that we only thought we knew who God is. All because God has shoved us out into the world and blessed us richly with a continued presence which grows and grows as we grow.
Every graduate, everyone on a journey, every human being, has times when we feel alone and wish we hadn’t been sent out from our home. We get homesick, frightened, anxious, and have our doubts about who we are and who God might be. We keep on going though because home is not there for us in the way it used to be. As we go on, rarely knowing what lies ahead, we are sustained by something we cannot explain. Occasionally we are swept up in new insight. We are on our own. But we are not alone. There we come to see what God intends for us if only in glimpses. Somehow those glimpses are more than enough.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.