Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Ascension: Not Separation, But Fullness

In his book The Eternal Year (Helicon, 1964, Chapter XI, pp. 97-104), Fr. Karl Rahner gives the most plausible theological explanation that I've read of the meaning of a feast which has mystified countless Christians over the ages. People in the 21st century have pretty much figured out by now that the New Testament's spatial references to the Ascension ("he was taken up") or hints of a sort of "divine elevator" aren't to be taken literally. Yet as the Church continues to tell us that the Ascension is one of its major feasts, unfortunately it's celebrated traditionally on a weekday when most folks work or are engaged in their multiplicity of activities and busyness. That makes it unlikely that they'll make time for such a liturgical observance. No wonder, then, that we ask why it's important at all, or what significance can it have for our spiritual lives.

Fr. Rahner speaks of Jesus' departure from the realm of space/time as leaving us all with a sense of loss.  Yet, Rahner says, "It is alarming that we feel no grief." (p. 97) Jesus' fellow human beings at the time, particularly those who followed him, must've felt the goodness, compassion and comfort which he radiated in his words and actions, not to mention the understanding of God, his Father, which he attempted to communicate to us. "...we were able to imagine something about God besides the abstractions of philosophers. At last, there was someone who knew something, and yet did not have to speak with clever eloquence. Someone we needed only to touch, someone we dared to kiss. Someone we slapped on the shoulder in a friendly way, and he did not get all upset about it. And in these trivialities we had everything -- everything incarnate: we had God, his mercy, his grace and his nearness. The eternal Word of the Father had compressed himself into our flesh..." (pp.97-98) 

For all the talk about and defense of Jesus' humanity through the centuries, it's been my experience and that of others that when you start talking about its logical implications and reality, most Christians resist. They seem unable to handle it. So embedded, in their view of Christ, is his divinity that his humanity, except for a few of the early Fathers of the Church, gets only something of a token nod. "Yes, but..." And so, says Fr. Rahner, we acknowledge that Jesus is gone, and we accept it with indifference. It's almost as if we assume that Jesus had bigger and better things to do than remain here on earth, and, Rahner suggests, who wouldn't, after the way those who arrested Jesus, judged him, and sent him off to be crucified treated him? "Can a person like me believe in you and love you? I hope so, Lord. Have mercy on me!..." (p. 98)

In this regard, that Jesus the Christ returned to the Father, Rahner points out something very significant, one of those "logical implications" of the humanity of Jesus. " faith and my consolation are centered on this: that he has taken with him everything that is ours. He has ascended and he sits at the right hand of the Father...The absolute Logos shall look at me in eternity with the face of a man. Those who theorize on the beatific vision forget this. As yet, I have read nothing about this in any modern tract in dogma [the original of this book appeared as Kleines Kirchenjahr in 1953]. How strange! At this point pious ascetics read into the silence of the dogmaticians some sentimental anthropomorphism about joy. And what is more, they even dare -- on their way to the beatific vision -- to bypass the humanity of Jesus. As though we can do this so casually! Whoever 'imagines' things this way obviously is not sufficiently aware that God's revelation was a man..." (pp. 100-101)

When one begins to put all this together, as Rahner has done, and takes the time to seriously reflect on and pray over it, the importance of the Ascension hits one with a force which takes the breath away! When Jesus speaks of "the Spirit whom I will send...who will lead you into all truth", he's not kidding us with flowery language. The Spirit, who actually is already with us and in us, isn't present in some vague, shadowy, general sort of way, e.g., through the Commandments or through some nice "lovey" dispositions or attitudes. According to Rahner, the One Jesus give us is "...his actual spirit, the Spirit that proceeds from him as the living, given reality of his divine life...Because [Jesus] wanted to come close to us definitively, he has gone away and has taken us with him...The reason for this is that his Spirit...upon whom Christ from eternity to eternity bestows the eternal fullness of life from the Father, the Spirit over and above which there is nothing that Christ could give in all eternity -- this Spirit is already in us now..." (p.104) In the Ascension, Jesus, the human and divine Anointed One, God's Son, returns home with all that is ours, making it possible for you and me to share God's own life, Godself.

Fr. Rahner concludes: "We notice nothing of this, and that is why the Ascension seems to be separation. But it is separation only for our paltry consciousness. We must will to believe in such a nearness -- in the Holy Spirit."  

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