Reflections on the Ascension -- Luke 24

by David Hawkinson

In the memorial service, tucked into the end of the great liturgy of Yom Kippur, a prayer is offered. It is only one prayer among so many eloquent petitions prayed during the Days of Awe. I used to pass by it quickly, fearing that any lingering in its phrases might release unwanted events in the future. Now, for me, the prayer stands out above the many others.

May God remember the soul of my father who has gone to his eternal home. In loving testimony to his life I pledge to help perpetuate ideals important to him. Through such deeds, and through prayer and memory, is his soul bound up in the bond of life. May I prove myself worthy of the gift of life and the many other gifts with which he blessed me. May these moments of meditation link me more strongly with his memory and with our entire family. May he rest eternally in dignity and peace. Amen.

Jesus turns to his disciples and says: “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised.” Then, he led them out, lifted his hands, blessed them and withdrew.

Neither resurrection nor ascension removes the pangs of separation, the process of mourning or the questions and obligations that follow. Indeed, these two great mysteries of the faith create a heightening—What should we do now? What did that life have to do with mine? Can his absence finally clean the slate and free us from going further on together? Are we finally free enough of our promises to each other that we can actually live our own lives once again? Or, are we bound in some inextricable way which death now seals because we have “witnessed these things?”

If death cannot offer the refuge of separation, then we are not emancipated by death. The Talmud is clear in its summing up of the lasting nature of these obligations: “One must honor them in life and one must honor them in death.”

But how unprepared we always are for these next steps. The leaving is always too abrupt, taken before enough time had been given for a careful plan to be put in operation. This is as true for those disciples who watched their master rise into the heavens as it is for us who are left alone. Something deep inside us all, our hearts perhaps, melt in fear—almost in panic.

It has been so for me. For the last year and a half, since the death of my father, I have felt this kind of fear, fixing me as if paraplegic, not knowing where to place my next foot or if the foot would move even if I knew where it ought to go. Obligations! Yes, I witnessed something, but not enough. Father, I did not know the ancestors as you did! I did not get that last quote or that bit of vision which made everything seem so complete to you! I know the library, but in what order were they read? I wasn’t paying as close attention as I might have! To have you in heaven is no real consolation! You are still not here!

I asked unanswerable questions a child asks
When a parent dies for nothing. Only slowly
Did I make myself believe—or hope—they
Might all be swept up in their fragments
And made whole again
By some compassionate hand.
But my hand was too small
To do the gathering.
I have only known this feeling since
When I looked out across the sea of death,
This pull inside against a littleness—myself
Waiting for an upward gesture.
—Herbert Mason from Gilgemesh

“Stay, here in the city,” says Jesus, “until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

So, after it was over, and he had left, they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy; they were continually in the temple blessing God.” What were these words they used? The great Hallel psalms from the Seder service just weeks before. Or, did they begin to fulfill the obligations for those left behind in the singing of the Mourners Kaddish:

Magnified and Sanctified may his great Name be, in the world that he created as he wills. And may his kingdom come in your lives and in your days and in the lives of all the House of Israel. Swiftly and soon. And say all, Amen!
Amen! May his great Name be blessed always and forever!
Blessed and praised and glorified and raised and exalted and honored and uplifted and lauded be the name of the Holy One (He is Blessed!) above all blessings and hymns and praises and consolations that are uttered in the world, and say all, Amen!
May a great peace from heaven—and Life!—be upon us and upon all Israel, and say all, Amen!
May he who makes peace in his high places make peace upon us and upon all Israel, and say all, Amen!
So this is how the ascension ends—in praise and in waiting. Yet even these words are sung with tears. No part of all that has happened can be left out. There is nothing left to do but sing and wait and tell stories of all that was witnessed while performing the one clear obligation. It is all that they could do because neither they nor we know what will happen next. As Rilke tells the young poet: “Were it possible for us to see further than our knowledge reaches, and yet a little way beyond the outworks of our divining, perhaps we would endure our sadness with greater confidence than our joys.”

Here, the Gospel ends. We are left waiting with the disciples and cannot see beyond or imagine the next scene. As in the moments when we have been left and the fear rises within us like a summer gale. We sing, like so many before, with voices sometimes full and strident, sometimes cracking, hesitant, unsure because we doubt whether we can even believe in the words we are singing. And yet it doesn’t matter what we believe. The language doesn’t matter, the accent and tune are irrelevant; eventually all words melt into the same acclamation:

Magnified and sanctified may his great Name be….”

And then, from somewhere deep within us, we feel as if “something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.” (Rilke)

So I wait, in that stillness, because something has happened to me because of him. Something of his life is inextricably bound up with mine. I cannot walk away without walking away from myself. There is no other way around it. Try as I might, the time of waiting is at hand. And, it will be this way for my own sons. And for their children. For we must all wrestle with the ways we are bound together, among family, those with whom we are in community, and with this one who is lifted up into glory on this day of ascension. Our lives are lived as reflections of these bonds. They do not end, but carry us into the next chapter, whatever that may be. Still, as it is promised to the disciples, so it is also promised to us—we will be given what we need for the next part of the story. The winds will come, the sails fill once again and the adventure will continue.

Magnified and Sanctified May His Great Name be.