Thursday, May 5, 2016

Long Ago and Far Away

"Earth's Crammed With Heaven"
- along a wilderness trail -

Today is “Ascension Day” on the Christian calendar – the day on which Jesus “went back up into heaven” after his death and resurrection. Many of us have likely seen the Hollywood movies:  Jesus is shown floating up into the sky as his disciples wave their tearful and fearful goodbyes while the master leaves them back here on earth until some future time when they will join him up in heaven.

I must say that, as a Christian, I have a great deal of trouble with the literal interpretation of what Ascension Day is all about. It makes everything about Jesus seem so long ago and far away. The Ascension story seems to be saying that “God” who was once here among us in the person of Jesus has now gone away. “God” is now distant and far-removed, living up in some “ivory tower” while all of us “poor slobs” continue to live in this earthly “vale of tears,” perhaps, from time to time, being granted a favor or two by the God up there.

Interestingly enough, it’s not only Christianity that tells “ascension stories.”  In the Hebrew scripture the prophet Elija is depicted as “rocketing up” into the heavens on a fiery chariot, and in Islam, at the end of his life, the prophet Muhammad ascends up into the skies to live forever in Paradise. As I see it, all these “ascension stories” make “God” and religion and faith seem so distant and so far away, and also so unbelievable, the stories almost sounding “silly” to the sensibilities of 21st century thinking.

Actually, I don’t believe the story of the Ascension of Jesus has anything to do with his going away - in fact the opposite is true. The story of the Ascension essentially proclaims that “God” is not limited by space and time.  “God” is not just to be found in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who once lived 2000 years ago in a place called Palestine. Rather, “God” has burst into another dimension, among us as a Holy Spirt, an abiding dynamic living “Presence” in all places and in all times.

Instead of teaching that “God” has gone away, the Ascension story teaches that “God” is always and intimately with us – a Holy Presence right here and right now in every single moment of every single day, an energy present in and flowing through everything that has being.

I am reminded of a line of poetry from Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth’s crammed with heaven
and every common bush alive with God

As I see it, this is ultimately what the Ascension story teaches - that every common bush is alive with God.

The Irish poet John O’Donohue puts it this way:

Although our minds constantly insist on seeing walks of separation,
in reality, most of the walls are mere veils.
In every moment, everywhere
we are not even inches away from divine presence.

So instead of looking up into the sky trying to catch a glimpse of a “gone-away God” up there,  the Ascension story teaches: “Set your gaze upon the earth, look to the present, be awake in every moment for this is where you will see the glory of God, the energy of Love shining through.

I am also reminded of one of my favorite wisdom teachings that I once found in a book of Buddhist essays:

Whatever we are looking for is already right here,
 we are usually elsewhere -  that’s the problem.
When we pay attention to our everyday life
we always discover something truly wonderful.

So on this Ascension Day I will intentionally attempt to pay closer attention to every moment of  my ordinary everyday life – for this is where I will discover something truly wonderful,  the glory of “God” shining through in every common bush.

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