Jesus’ Ascension and Christian maturity
Acts 1:6-14 Today is one of the stranger days in our church calendar. It is one of those days that finds us in the midst of another key transition. In this case, it is the transition from celebrating Jesus’ resurrection through the long Easter season to the arrival of the promised Holy Spirit at Pentecost. That arrival marks the beginning of “ordinary time” that will then continue for the next several months, roughly half of the year, until we begin again in Advent. But we’re not there yet. Today we are in-between. Today the season of Easter continues, but it continues with a most significant change. The resurrected Jesus, who has been appearing and teaching and leading us… has gone. Just when you start to think you might have a handle on this whole resurrected, new life, thing… something else changes! This second departure is not like that the terrible one that happened back on Good Friday. Jesus has not died. But Jesus is, nevertheless, gone, again, and while Jesus left us with the promise of a Holy Spirit to come, still… we have enough experience of God to know that it won’t be the same as it has been.
In the life of our community here at St. Andrew’s, another couple of questions were left in our question box last Sunday. One of them is: What is Christian maturity? Like the question we explored 2 weeks ago, this is not a question with any particularly definitive answer. There are many possible good answers and that might be the point. But this holy moment we find ourselves in, these 10 transitional days, offers us one avenue of exploration in considering Christian maturity. Coming to believe that Jesus is alive… that God brings a miracle of life out of death… isn’t all there is. Our sacred story continues today with a kind of absence. It isn’t, strictly speaking, the death of God like on Good Friday, but it is still an absence that can tell us something about another step in the maturing of our Christian faith.
The disciples are together with Jesus again and take the opportunity to ask: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” “It’s not for you to know…” Jesus replies, and then reassures them that it will still be okay… “you will receive power…” and tells them what they will do next: “you will be my witnesses…” everywhere! Then seemingly out of nowhere, the mystical moment arrives and Jesus is lifted up on a cloud to disappear into heaven. The disciples return to Jerusalem and do probably the only thing they could think to do… the named 11 and various other women and men gather together in the upper room and devote themselves constantly to prayer. To be continued…
This story is unabashedly mystical. The only way in… the only way to try and understand or even interact with this story, telling of a holy moment and inspiring a high Christian festival, is to suspend our disbelief and let our imaginations loose. We have to hear it with our hearts if it is to influence our spiritual growth. The lens of theology is an important one and there is much interesting thought we could explore around the death of certain ways of understanding God. But given that our story today ends with a multitude of disciples, women and men alike, gathered together “constantly devoting themselves to prayer,” we would be remiss if we didn’t honour the mystical nature of the story and the spiritual practice of prayer.
One of the honoured mystics of the church is 16th century Spanish nun, St. Teresa of Avila. She was and is well-known as a reformer and a writer who was beatified in 1582, a mere 32 years after her death. In 1970, the Pope declared St. Teresa a Doctor of the Church, making her the first woman to receive such an honour. Her latest and most famous writing, titled The Interior Castle, was intended to provide a kind of guide to prayer for the sisters of the Carmelite order to which she belonged. The guiding metaphor of the work is of a castle: “we consider our soul to be like a castle” St. Teresa wrote, “made entirely out of a diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in heaven there are many dwelling places.” (35) St. Teresa then goes on to explore the different dwelling places in this castle, seven of them in total, with the seventh and final place as the centre of the castle and of the soul, in full union with God.
The journey begins, however in the first dwelling place, which is really outside the castle. It is exterior living. Entrance to the castle is gained through prayer, which in this first place is about knowing oneself. It is about self-reflection, which leads to self-knowledge. From there, moving into the second and third dwelling places takes human effort, human will and perseverance in practicing prayer and developing a virtuous life of piety and good works. Many good and faithful people stay in these dwelling places, because they are mostly comfortable and to move further is to submit to the will of a God who calls us to leave everything and be disturbed. Going further in the journey means letting go of comfort and predictability, and yet that’s what will take us into the very heart of God.
In the fourth dwelling place and beyond, the journey of prayer takes an important turn as God begins to grant the soul spiritual delight. More than the good feelings we get from our own meditation and virtuous works, spiritual delights begin with God, not with human effort or success. Delightful experiences come when we don’t strive for them, instead loving God without self-interest by letting go of human will and intellect. Transformation truly takes hold in the fifth dwelling place with a process akin to a silk-worm turning into a butterfly. The butterfly emerges restless, however, not knowing what to do. Like the Prodigal child, the soul here desires the peace and security of home, but as the experience to get there has left the soul transformed to a new life – as different as a butterfly is to a worm – there can be no “going home.” The ongoing delight is joined by turmoil in the sixth place as the soul lives with moments of the beauty and wonder of God’s presence, alongside the turmoil and pain of God’s seeming absence and silence. The meeting of the previous dwelling place has left the soul wanting more and so distance from God is all the more difficult, even though here the soul is so close to the seventh and final place. It can be a very long journey in, around and through the sixth dwelling place. It is a delight to be so close to God and it is the dark night of the soul, suspended as it is between earth and heaven.
Such turmoil is, however, a necessary waypoint in the journey to the seventh and final dwelling place of union of spirit with spirit in the very heart of God and centre of the soul. This is where the butterfly that was earlier restless, now finds rest in death, so that it can live in Christ. The effect of the death is that the soul forgets the self and is interested only in honouring and serving God. The turn-about that happens in this dwelling place is remarkable, for while there is detachment from the world, there is also a fullness of engagement with the world. The soul’s union with God means a peace and calm in total surrender to God, lived out in service to others. Here, Mary and Martha join together. “In sum, my Sisters,” St. Teresa writes, “what I conclude with is that we shouldn’t build castles in the air. The Lord doesn’t look so much at the greatness of our works as at the love with which they are done. And if we do what we can, His Majesty will enable us each day to do more and more…” (194)
Whatever Christian maturity is, it certainly means going through a variety of stages in our spiritual lives. St. Teresa of Avila’s description of an interior castle with seven different “dwelling places” – seven different stages in our practice of prayer – is one way of exploring the spiritual life. Digging in to the various movements of our liturgical year, following every stage of the story of Jesus, is another. In both cases, the times of difficulty… like the kind of absence we experience today in the story of Jesus’ Ascension, are important parts of the journey. Christian maturity means going through all the parts, not just once, but year after year. Christian maturity means working through the times of our lives when God feels distant, when we don’t feel alive in the Holy Spirit, when God seems absent, and trusting that this too is part of the journey. More importantly, as St. Teresa describes, times of God’s absence may actually signal that we are close to a break-through… to a fuller union of our soul with God’s own heart than we ever thought possible.
Such is the promise of the coming Holy Spirit… that God will come in power and majesty, no longer apart from us but to dwell inside us. That time is still yet to come… for today, we are called simply to gather and to pray. Christian maturity means abiding by God’s direction, even when we don’t understand what’s happened and we don’t know what might happen next. And so as we faithfully live through the times of God’s absence, may we continue in our prayers such that when God comes to us in a new way, we will have matured just a little bit more.