Solemnity of the Ascension

[Scripture Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Eph 1:17-23; Lk 24:46-53]

St. Bernard of Clairvaux accorded more importance to the Ascension of Christ than to His Resurrection! For Bernard the life of Jesus Christ was best understood in its relationship to fallen humanity; a humanity that is aware of both its separation from God and its intense hunger for reunion. Everything that happened in the life of Jesus, from Incarnation to Ascension, was related to a phase of our return to the Father. Everything that He did, we must do. Like Christ, we must live our lives intentionally toward this reunion with the Father. This intention is called “Wisdom.”

Wisdom’s method is to find and follow the order of things. Bernard tells us that before Christ and we can ascend, we must descend. To do this, the abbot gives us six steps of humility that Jesus did and urges them for us.

Christ descended initially when He emptied Himself and became man. We empty self by renouncing the will to dominate, to “have the upper hand.” Then He handed Himself over to humanity for their acceptance or rejection. We do the same when we renounce the will to control and patiently submit to the unpleasant experiences that form part of our life. The third and final step of descent happens when we endure unjust treatment. For Jesus this meant His death. For us it is the step that separates the men from the boys. It confronts us with the truth of the limited power we have over our own lives. It is for this step that our monastic life is organized to prepare our minds and our hearts to persevere.

Bernard writes of the step that “so far it is the truth that compels your humility; it is as yet untouched by the inpouring of love(Sc 42.6). Bernard defines humility as knowing the truth about oneself in the light of the truth about God. The real agony or struggle of this step is in this change in the way we regard or assess our experience of injustice. Here is where wisdom must be sought because wisdom is not just knowledge of the truth, but the good sense to take it seriously.

Taking truth seriously in the midst of crisis, of the collapse of our world as we have known it, means confessing that we and our ideas are not quite as important as we thought or we wouldn’t be in the throes of defeat.

This truth leads to love when we find one who can save us from this defeat, who can prevent it from being final. The discovery of our unimportance is eclipsed by the discovery of what is most important. To this we show devotion. Devotion is the opposite of cowardice; it is the courage to act promptly for what matters most. It is simplicity: life focused on One Thing. The mind and heart are prepared and courage and devotion are fostered by prayer and meditation.

The fruit of meditation, then, must be a decision: either to aspire to union with the Father or to settle for self-determined objectives within the order of the world. The decision will depend on the intensity of the hunger for reunion that Bernard describes. It will be an occasion for wisdom or for folly.

To aspire does not mean to attain by our own unaided efforts. St. Bernard tells us that the first step of Christ’s ascension is His Resurrection. He did not rise from the dead; He was raised. To aspire is to put our hope in what lies ahead. The fourth step of our humility, and the first of our ascension, is the innocence of our deeds in the face of injustice. Instead of retaliation, we “turn the other cheek.” The power to do that must come from a very strong reason. That reason must be LOVE for something more important than self. That love is wisdom.

In this step sentimental love for Christ will fail us; we must now imitate Him in His total preference for the Father if our love is to mature into a spiritual love. In ascending it will seem as though He has departed from us, but in reality He has only disappeared. Bernard finds the real significance of the ascension in precisely that fact: that His disappearance occasions our move from sentimental love to spiritual love.

Thus, the next step is purity of heart. As a result of patiently submitting to the unjust judgment leading to the cross, Christ was given the power of judgment. As a result of our patiently submitting to the trials of life, and meditation leading to devotion, our hearts are prepared and set on One Thing. Here is the great blessing of fidelity to God’s way of life: we feel certain of the direction of our lives, we feel favored and assured of the Father’s providential care.

The third and final step of ascent, the sixth of humility, is devoted service. Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father. Having renounced domination and being freed from the bondage of self-concern we are willing and able to serve God and our fellows. This is how we love one another as Jesus has loved us. In the end the sentimental love of things as they affect us is transformed into the spiritual love of how we can affect others. Bernard’s friend, Guigo the Carthusian, sums up the lesson of the ascension and these steps of humility. He wrote: “You can love others for what they are or may become if you love them; or you can love them for what you are or may become if you love them.”

Three Steps of Humility: Descent

1. Renounce Will to Dominate

     (Incarnation)

2. Patient Submission

     (Cross)

3. Endure Injustice

     (Death)

Three Steps of Humility: Ascent
3. Innocence in Action
     (Resurrection)
2. Purity of Heart
     (Power of Judgment)
1. Devoted Service
     (Ascension/Sit at Father’s right hand)

SOURCE: “Three Short Sermons on the Ascension,” Cistercian Studies Quarterly, Vol 25.1 (1990) 3-8.

Jonah Wharff, “Bernard of Clairvaux and RenĂ© Girard On Desire and Envy” / Cistercian Studies Quarterly, Vol 42.2 (2007) 193-207.

Solemnity of the Ascension

[Scripture Readings: Acts l:1-ll; Eph 1:17-23; Mt 28:16-20]

Fr. DavidYour dirty little secret is out. Your life is getting messier and more cluttered. There are some authors making small fortunes selling you books on “how to get rid of clutter in your life.” Others are listing the “seven steps for highly effective people” and we surely want to be included in that group. The approach these authors suggest is to set realistic goals and then measure your performance according to them. Of course, our mothers would gladly fulfill this role in helping us manage our lives—but we just won’t listen to them. (Happy Mother’s Day.) So we buy these books and learn how to set goals.

But there is a deeper issue when we consider realistic goals: am I nearing my goals in life? Am I becoming the person I am supposed to be? We experience a duality of the outer, external obligations, demands of life. But we also have an inner, and interior sense of self: my desires, my secrets, longings, and urges. This is the mystery of our human nature. We seek a connectedness, congruence of inner and outer, personal and social. But we know they can be separate. We can’t always deal with them simultaneously. Yet, what is unique and interior can only be discovered in a process of external exploration, efforts, success and failures. Sometimes we prefer to avoid risk by getting over-organized, leaving nothing unplanned. But this can result in dullness and a boring security. On the other hand, total spontaneity can lead to a rootlessness, an indeterminacy, an inability to really accomplish anything. To live with a human nature is to live with an inherent ambiguity.

The Ascension of ChristIt is striking to see this same ambiguity highlighted in the Gospel. “When they saw him, they worshipped, but they doubted.” This is a bit jarring. Here are the princes of the church, its nucleus, well-formed disciples, exactly at the conclusion of the Gospel: they worshiped, and they doubted. On the one hand, they recognized, adored, committed them selves to Christ. At the same time, they were hesitant, doubted, held back. Seemingly opposite responses coexisted in them. They seemed to share in the ambiguity of human nature. Karl Rahner has written “your faith is as deep as your doubt.” They are not mutually exclusive. Faith rises from that part of your self where you form your life out of a vision of what is real, even if it is beyond what is visible. The very light of this faith illumines the dark gaps the lack of congruence and wholeness that still exist in us. Faith is itself a gift, not a product of our reasoning power. The implications of faith only slowly become apparent to us. It is a gift, and not a possession. The doubt reflects our inability to integrate this new vision.

We often see this doubleness in our own experience. What is best is often intertwined with what is worse or even perverse. Our efforts at generosity are tinged with self-regard and we are hurt if we are not appreciated. Our efforts at love become deflated in an experience of possessiveness or jealousy. When we move out beyond the borders of what is normal, organized, controllable, we aren’t sure what to expect. An unknown potential is within us, and we don’t know its face until it emerges. It is safer to stay within limits, to judge everything in terms of what is already known. Safer to obey the pull of what is clearly credible to our judgment. To doubt.

Why do you stand gazing up into heaven?We would like to rise above this ambiguity, to escape the opacity of everyday life, the weight of limited understanding. We often like to see and use spirituality and religion as an escape from these tensions. We kill time on earth, waiting for our own share in the inheritance of Christ’s glory. After all, aren’t we celebrating his ascension, his great escape, his rising above it all? Yet the post-Easter appearances of Jesus have precisely the point of redirecting our gaze, our attention, to the reality of earth and of our human nature. “Why do you stand gazing up into heaven?” Christ spent a lot of time teaching his disciples that he is to be found in the midst of human life. This is where the kingdom was manifesting itself. “He presented himself to them alive by many proofs after he had suffered.” The experience of the early community was the slow and patient pedagogy, teaching of Jesus, which was addressed not to a detached, empirical, or analytical process of knowing that he was alive, but to an inner and interior knowing. Only this inner knowing, this faith, would provide the openness, which then allows seeing external and material reality for what it really is. “May God give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him. May the eyes of your heart be enlightened.” Christ teaches and communicates both his word and his spirit, both the outer form of his life and the principle of interiorization and communion which is his spirit.

In Christ, we have ascended into heavenHe has taken up human nature into the highest heavens. He has not abandoned us, nor has he escaped. He has positioned that humanity which we share with him above all the powers that can frighten and terrorize and captivate us. Pope John Paul II said, “Heaven is not a place, it is a relationship.” We are invited to share in the eternal relations of Father Son and Spirit, to know that our world, our human nature and history is already in communion with the life of the Godhead, that our world is open to heaven and heaven to our world. That in Christ, we have ascended into heaven.

The glorification of Christ’s humanity is already our glorification, even as His resurrection is our resurrection. His fullness is the fullness which fills us as the members of His body, the church. Our goal is present to us. It is not so much that we reach our goal, the fruit of our own efforts, but that we daily touch our goal, as our goal—Christ glorified in his humanity—touches us.