Homily given for Ascension Sunday: May 23-24, 2020 at my church, Sts. Clare and Francis, part of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion.
A couple of years ago I drove from St. Louis to West Texas for my cousin Ray’s funeral. Ray and I were really close, and his death was unexpected. As I hit the road I started noticing big birds of prey—falcons, eagles and hawks. On the highway right out of St. Louis a bald eagle flew over my car. Then I kept noticing them—sometimes they came in pairs, sometimes alone; sitting on the fences along the stretches of highway or sometimes flying in loops alongside my car.
For fun I began counting– by the time I got to Dallas and it was too dark to see them anymore, I had counted 65 large birds. 65! Everyone who called me on that drive got to hear about it—“Dad, that’s 27!… Meg, I’m at 50!” It felt so remarkable I had to share it—I had to share my moment of lift… at a time when I really needed it.
That day, those birds taught me something I carry with me—they gave me the GIFT OF LIFT.
Ever since, large birds seem to visit me—and they always seem to come in a moment when I really need to remember the view from up there… the higher perspective…
Oscar Romero, that prophet and saint of El Salvador, calls it, “the long view.” A prayer written in his honor says, “It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.”
Today we celebrate Ascension Sunday, and to me, right now, this is what ascension is all about—the long view, the greater perspective, what I’m calling THE GIFT OF LIFT.
Ascension is a weird thing, a strange theological concept. Do any of us actually get it? It plays with our head, with the rules, and it plays right into this season, this time between Easter and Pentecost when everything is… weird. Nobody gets it—we don’t, and probably neither did the closest friends and followers of Jesus who were living these mysteries as they were happening.
We see it in the first reading—“why are you standing there and looking at the sky?” It evokes bewilderment or losing ground. Often we read this as—snap to it! Don’t float off to some blue spiritual fancy. Come back to earth! There’s work to be done!
But what if we shift this just a bit, into a moment of lift? What if it’s really saying—don’t just stand there, looking up… why not come UP, and catch this view for a bit? See what I see? I know you’re all stuck in the particulars of your life… in what’s not going well, in what you can’t figure out… but… Come check out the God View! Come participate in this Ascension thing, at least for a moment, see what I see and infuse this perspective, this knowing, this long view into the rest of your life!
What is seen from this perspective? Imagine it for a moment. Feel yourself here, in your house, right where you are. And now imagine, for a moment, a bird, flying over your house. What can it see, if it could see through walls and rooftops? It would see you and your family, your pets, all at once. It would see your neighbors. It would see not just your house but all the houses in your neighborhood. It would see your yard, blending into every other yard, regardless of fences… an interconnecting web of green… If you keep expanding this even further out, what do you see? The city… the country… the world.
Focusing on the part, you only see the part, and can so often get stuck there… but with the GIFT OF LIFT, with the God-view, we are invited into the Wholeness of things, into the Big Holding, into the way, somehow, it all belongs. We are invited into the way Love sees—all-encompassing and far-reaching, leaving nothing out… connected.
The GIFT OF LIFT gives us levity, space and perspective. It is an unconditional and total Love that hopefully leads to a loosening around how tightly we tend to hold things.
As we walk this road between Easter and Pentecost with one another and with our ancestors, those first followers of Jesus, we remember first this moment, the Ascension, soon to be followed by Pentecost, or the DESCENT of the Holy Spirit. So first we have the ASCENT, then comes the DESCENT. And in these weeks leading up to this paradox, we’ve been in a lot of other paradoxes. If you stop to think about it, this entire Easter season is full of paradox.
Jesus is here but not here. There is faith and there is doubt. There is death and there is life. There is ascent and descent, above and below, heaven and earth. Jesus is gone, but the Christ presence REMAINS.
Isn’t this our life—full of paradox, full of things that don’t seem to go together, that we can’t figure out and that don’t make sense? We’re in so many right now—do we stay home, do we go out? We want to be safe, but we also want to see those we love. Various people and parties think they have the answer, the solutions but they all seem so different, opposing even. And when we’re looking at them from IN them, when it’s all we see, they make even less sense.
This week we’re invited into the paradoxes that, somehow, seem to be THE WAY we learn the gift of lift. It is only in being invited into the places that don’t make sense to our logical, analyzing brains that we have to loosen up… to create some space… to allow other ways of seeing and being… to step outside ourselves and begin to imagine how it could be… we “give up” in a sense, to the God-view… we allow ourselves to be LIFTED into the new way… begin to inhabit the GIFT OF LIFT.
Richard Rohr loves saying that “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name. It’s true—it’s ours. Jesus was a person who came to initiate us all into a way of being in this world… a Christ-ed way of being. It became so at our baptism. We explore and celebrate what it means each time we gather as a Church family. We help each other remember. It’s why every year we walk through it all again—life, death, resurrection. And now, as we EACH carry the heart of Christ, we each and all participate in His ascension. We each carry and embody the GIFT OF LIFT.
I want to be clear that this is NOT spiritual bypass or escapism. It is LEVITY, hope, maintaining the God-view, to see as God sees and love as She loves, in the midst of all the difficulties and paradoxes our human life, right here and now.
In our culture, this can be tough. To live with such lift, with levity, and with love is often seen as immature or naïve or unrealistic. We seem to applaud people for overworking and stressing out and being exhausted. To live so– to live love-centered and lifted– is to be, in many ways, counter-cultural. It can be easier to live in the drag, to pat ourselves on the back for everything being ‘so hard.’ And that’s not to say things aren’t difficult—so much is, especially right now. But we are ascended people, with Jesus, in the Christ presence. The challenge and the call is living the GIFT OF LIFT, IN the difficulty. Attuning to what needs to be done while keeping the gaze from above.
One of my teachers says, “It takes discipline to be a free spirit.” I love this. Lift takes practice and intentional choice.
What is your discipline of lift? How do you remember you are an ascended being while you live into the descent of the Holy Spirit in your life? It is like Jesus’ mustard seed—so small, yet carrying so much lift …that the shift… happens in a moment.
For me, it is a song that makes me dance or smile. It is a conversation with someone who I know knows my heart. Its going outside into my small back yard and looking at my tree or listening to the birds. Its remembering and feeling, in my heart, even for a moment, that I am loved totally. Its remembering, in a moment of confusion, to “give up” and give over to the One who Always holds the Bigger Perspective of Love. These things are so small, can happen in a moment, yet they have the power to lift me. I trust that who I am can then lift others. And I know—that who you are lifts all those around you.
And in its smallness, the gift of lift is so significant it can dismantle systems of oppression. Melinda Gates has a fantastic new book out called, “The Moment of Lift.” It’s about how, all over the world, when one woman in a community gets a lift—an education, a small loan, healing from abuse, the dismantling of a system holding her down—she inevitably lifts up not just her family but her whole community. Giving the gift of lift in moments like this is truly transformational. Gates writes,
“Love is what lifts us up. When we come together, we rise. And in the world we’re building together, everyone rises. No one is exploited because they’re poor or excluded because they’re weak. There is no stigma and no shame and no mark of inferiority because you’re sick or because you’re old or because you’re not the ‘right’ race, or because you’re the wrong religion or because you’re a girl or a woman. There is no wrong race or religion or gender. We have shed our false boundaries. We can love without limits. We see ourselves in others. We see ourselves AS others. That is the moment of lift.” (“The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World”, pg. 264)
This is ascension. This is the GIFT OF LIFT and it wasn’t just a weird thing Jesus did a long time ago. It’s for you, for me… for all of us together. Let us lift our hearts to the Lord. Let us shine the lift of our hearts towards one another. Let this lift shift our attitudes, our prayers, our everything. Let us remember the God-view, the long view, especially when we get stuck in the paradoxes and all that is difficult. Let us BE what we ARE, the gift of lift, together.