I confess that I have always dreaded preaching on the Ascension. I have always felt that something about the feast eluded me, that there was something I should understand which I clearly did not. It has seemed to me that there was some greater theological implication which I simply missed. Maybe I was out sick that day in seminary and dozed off in the sermon that day every year since.
Here is what I do know about the Ascension: forty days after His Resurrection, Jesus Christ led His disciples away from Jerusalem and gave them some final instructions. St. Luke tells us, “Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.” (Acts of the Apostles 1:9) The Apostles, awestruck, continue staring heavenward (likely because they have not thought of anything better to do quite yet) when two men in white apparel appear next to them. These “men” ask the observers, “why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” (v. 11) Ten days later, while praying in Jerusalem as they had been instructed, the Apostolic company received the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, exactly as Jesus had promised.
Still, I feel like I am missing something. It is as if there was some cloud surrounding me that prevents me from really fathoming the significance of the feast. I recognize that He was taken up into Heaven and will one day return in the same manner. I know that the Ascension prevented Him from facing corruption of old age, decay, and death, except that He already had dealt with and conquered those foes on the Cross. I know that, just as He came down from Heaven to save us, He was taken back up into Heaven to watch over us. Nevertheless, I feel like I am missing something.
Yet, in meditating on the Glorious Mysteries, I believe I came to an epiphany about the feast. My newfound understanding is this: it is alright to be confused and in the dark every now and then.
Jesus was taken up into a cloud; that cloud obscured Him from the sight of the Apostles. He was lost to them, or so they felt until Pentecost. In that capacity, we think of the cloud as a bad thing. It keeps us from being with Our Lord in the ways which we have become accustomed. We cannot see Him; we cannot touch Him. That challenges us. We do not like obscurity. We do not like the dark. We hate not being able to see. We have an almost primal fear of the dark. Children, who have never known any real reason to be afraid in their lives will wake up screaming in terror because they are alone in the dark. What is the first thing that moms and dads do when they enter those bedrooms? They turn on the lights. Darkness, fog, and clouds all inhibit us in the same way. They prevent us from using our most dominant sense, our sight. Without our sight we feel completely lost.
Yet this is not the attitude the Bible seems to have about darkness, fog, and clouds. You see, our God, who is in all places at all times, also dwells in the darkness and clouds. Before Creation, when “darkness was over the face of the deep,” (Genesis 1:2) the LORD was there hovering in the darkness. After the Exodus, when the children of Israel came to the Wilderness of Sin and complained about their lack of food, as Aaron was relaying the Word of the LORD to the people, “behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.” (Exodus 16:10) Later on, at Mount Sinai, the people were terrified by the Glory of the LORD and begged Moses to speak with the LORD on their behalf. “So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.” (Exodus 20:21) The amount of light in any given place is irrelevant to the LORD. In Psalm 139, King David declares,
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You. (vv. 11-12)
The darkness makes no difference to Him, but it makes a great deal of difference to us. We are an easily-distracted people. We can find ourselves chasing after every glittery, shiny piece of confetti that flitters across our path. Even as adults, we often avoid the dark and we hate silence. At those times we are without distraction and without shelter. There is no one else except the scared and lonely self and the God who can make the darkness light. (II Samuel 22:29)
The darkness and the clouds may be uncomfortable, but God dwells there. When we who are confused and dealing with the unknown feel as though we are in a great fog, we must remember that God dwells in the clouds. When we feel as though we were alone and that the darkness is our only companion, we must remember that not only does the LORD hover over the darkness, but that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5) When we fail to understand the world around us, may God give us the grace to sit in the clouds of darkness and wait until He reveals Himself.
Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.