No matter what our state of life today might be, we all share, from the start, the sacred bond of family. Let us imagine a family that has just bought their first home. Mother and Father saved for it, perhaps admired it for years, and now they have bought it. It is theirs forever. The kids are in their bedrooms making each room their own. Mother is radiant with happiness as she puts the finishing touches on her newly organized kitchen. Father stands outside admiring it, bathed in dusky light with each window aglow watching the family full of goodly activity and periodic bursts of laughter. And he laces his fingers together and says, "O Lord, Thank you! May this moment never end!"
For the household of humankind, this is what life with the Risen Christ must have been: a moment of ultimate fulfillment. So many mountaintop experiences leading up to it .... and shattering tragedies. But now the whole family has come to their moment of greatest joy. Nothing can hurt them now, for our Lord, our everything, our all has overcome our worst fears. If He is for us, who can be against us? And beyond death, which He conquered, ... is only Heaven, for where He is, there we shall be also .... if we will keep His commandments. But, of course, we will keep His commandments! For what could the world possibly offer that could compare with life in Him?
That is what Easter means to me. Perhaps it is all those years I spent on the Eastern Seaboard living through Nor'easters and Sou'easters. Easter is a definite direction and experience. It is the furthest East you can imagine, a morning light and dawn that never ends. It is not just East, but far Easter than that. And we remember the night of His birth: "long lay the world in sin ... and ever-pining/Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth" — an awakening, an enlivening, a passage from death unto life. So many things would happen in the decades following that night in Bethlehem. But in the end, He appeared to us in all His power and fullness and divine glory. And we knew that everything in the world was right and would be right ... forever. From now on, God is with us and calls us His friends and invites us to share His love forever. Really and truly forever. And after He is risen, He goes about with us, reassuring us, teaching us, explaining all things that we did not understand, that we ourselves would never be able to solve or grasp. And we are possessed of a peace the like of which we have never known. "O, Lord," we pray, "Thank you! May this moment never end!"
But, suddenly, it does end. In a twinkling He ascends away from us and, then, just as quickly, vanishes behind a cloud. We are stunned. Two men dressed in white promise that He will return someday, but what is that to us?! Words, spoken by strangers! How can they begin to weigh in the balance against the loss of our Lord — all of our joy, all of our happiness all of our peace and security. What could possibly compensate for the unexpected and sudden catastrophe of losing Him .... again! He is gone! And we are alone! I think of the Giotto painting of St. Mary Magdalene falling, overwhelmed in her grief. It's title, Noli me tangere, refers to the Lord's own words, "Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father" (Jn 20:17). Her heart is disconsolate as she collapses to the ground. realizing that she will lose Him — will lose the sound of His voice, His caring gaze, His wisdom, and, anyway, she does not understand these strange words "ascended to the Father. This much is clear: He will be leaving us. Already, we cannot touch Him.
Yes, many times Jesus had mentioned this Spirit of Truth, this Counselor, this Comforter, this Teacher Who will remind us and tutor us. But what could that matter to us ... if it is not Him?! Anyway, we do not understand what or who such a figure might be. All that matters to us now is a slowly dawning truth that He will be leaving us — the Shepherd on Whom we could always rely, Who stilled the winds and calmed the seas and Who pledged always to seek the stray lamb, for not one He said could ever be lost.
Surely now, we are lost, scattered on a hillside, a flock without a shepherd. And we finally understand the nervous demands and edgy emotions of Phillip and Thomas and the others who flailed within their spirits demanding that He explain more about His departure: Who and What is the Father? When will the Kingdom of Israel be restored? Where exactly are you going? Why can't we come? And, then, on that first Ascension Thursday, He disappeared. And we were alone. And then the sun set, and our alone-ness only deepened. The next day the sun rose, and, no doubt, they looked for Him around every corner, for that is the way He appeared to them following His resurrection. But He does not appear, and the world, therefore, was filled only with emptinesses. And again the sun set. And each morning from there on would hold the same empty promise.
During these ten days, between the Ascension of our Lord and Pentecost, is a time of deep, personal crisis. We do well to recall that the Holy Spirit will remind us of everything we have already learned, for this in-between period recalls another crisis, suffered not so long ago: Holy Saturday. And we must realize that the path to Heaven is not so much a following Jesus as a crowd trailing Him from place to place to see what is next. The path to Heaven is an inner path, and spiritual advancement can never occur without crisis. For while spiritual growth is a becoming, it is also an undoing. We are undone! A whole world we knew must die, so that all that is good and noble and worthy within us might be free to live!
Once we enter those depths of conversion what is next for us? A generative swirl of creative love and energy surrounds us as we seamlessly enter an eternal communion with the Lord Who seamlessly enters the Father as the Father enters Him. We participate in a power of love so great that it made an entire world that was good. This is the Trinitarian conception of the Latin West — that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the love between the Father and the Son, and the Spirit will enfold us into this divine unity. Listen again to the words that we read yesterday on the Vigil of the Ascension:
"I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.
They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.
Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; ... All mine
are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now
I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming
to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so
that they may be one, as we are one." (Jn 17:6-10)