Imagining the Gospel: The Ascension

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“Imagining the Gospel Scene” is a series from the Jesuit Media Lab. On occasional Sundays throughout this liturgical year, creators in the JML community will respond to the day’s Gospel passage through the practice of Ignatian contemplation, or what is sometimes called “imaginative prayer.”

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola invites participants to place ourselves in Gospel scenes using the imagination, relying on our senses to develop a distinctive, personal perspective on a given story — and thereby getting to know Christ better. After praying with the Gospel using their imaginations, our contributors will create a piece of art flowing from their experience — a painting, poem, short story, song, photograph or work in another medium.

Today’s installment is “A reading from the diary of an anxious apostleby Maya Jain.

Seventh Sunday of Easter, Solemnity of the Ascension: May 12, 2024
John 17:11b-19

“But they went forth and preached everywhere,
while the Lord worked with them
and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.”

~~~~~

A reading from the diary of an anxious apostle

I’ve never been good at goodbyes.

And of all the goodbyes, of grandmas lost to age and lovers who spurned me when my sensitive nature became too much, this is the farewell that has shaken me the most, that even now plays on repeat in my mind’s eye—

my Teacher, my friend of what, two, three years,

truly one of the most extraordinary and charismatic men I’ve ever met,

inexplicably lifted up, borne aloft, glorious,

all of us stunned standing below, necks craned, the tears flowing freely as we realized that, yes, he was making good on his promise to go back to his father.

“Ascension,” John Singleton Copley, public domain

He’d always told us this would happen, and now it is so.

And it is glorious. Magnificent, really. He looked so beautiful as he rose. And you could feel the power of God, like pressure on your chest, like extra gravity sticking you down to earth as he wafted away, 

So yes, it is as it should be.

Some of the others who were there were saying it is perhaps even more glorious than his rising from the dead.

Why, then, does it feel like a loss?

Why am I grieving my Lord yet again?

~~~~~

With him it’s been goodbye over and over.

The first of many was when he and the others left for Gethsemane the night of that strange and mysterious dinner.

Once he had said that someone would betray him—

and added with an uncharacteristic venom that it would be better if that man had never been born—

I felt my heart drop to the pit of my stomach, a sure sign of an oncoming anxiety attack.

He must have seen it in my face, because his look was much softer, concerned, when he approached me after dinner and asked if I wanted to come to the garden to pray.

I told him I wasn’t feeling up to it.

“I figured,” he said with a weak smile.

He always got it; never pressured me when my anxiety reared its ugly head and I needed to take a step back, never made me feel like I had to prove I didn’t feel anxious. Jesus was okay with it, really and truly.

I could see a fair bit of his own anxiety in his deep brown eyes that night—which should have tipped me off that something big was about to go down.

“But if you’re not coming with, then you gotta pray for me from here, okay?”

We hugged. He went. The first goodbye.

So I wasn’t there in the garden, and as much as I regret to say it, I wasn’t there when they executed him the next day.

I was too much of a coward, a disgrace to the word “friend.”

So few of us proved ourselves worthy friends when it really mattered.

Thank God for the women who stood together, arms linked, and prayed in the face of that cruel cross, who days later went to the tomb and met the angels who told them he wouldn’t be found dead.

As for me, that whole weekend was a blur, anxiety attack after anxiety attack in the upper room.

Once I heard of the arrest, once I realized that our brief exchange after supper would be the last time I ever saw him, I spiraled. Weeping and hyperventilating. My body wracked with tremors. Unable to calm the racing thoughts and heart rate.Each morning I’d vomit repeatedly, puking up only sour yellow bile because I couldn’t keep down any food.

Don’t give me too much credit; I’m ashamed to admit that my worries about and grief for my friend—who must have been in unimaginable pain at that point—were secondary to being scared shitless about suffering the same torture and fate.

The anguish of I’m never going to see him again was subsumed by dear God, I don’t think I can ever leave this room again.

And if he hadn’t come back to life, I might not have.

~~~~~

I was lucky.

Not “Mary and Cleopas getting primetime and a personal Scripture lesson with him on their day trip to Emmaus” lucky, but lucky nonetheless.

I was there with the crowd of hundreds who saw that our Lord was no longer a dead man.

I was there on the mountaintop when he told the eleven of us to go out and gather more disciples.

I was there when he hounded Peter to feed us smelly sheep.

I got to eat with him again.

I would have been okay with things continuing that way forever. Days or a week might go by without hearing of him or from him, but suddenly there he was, and it was like old times.

And every time I saw him, or every time a friend came back with news of another sighting, I felt a thrill, a wash of relief, a reprieve, be it ever so brief, from the anxiety that was back so much more consistently and intensely now.

Just his being there soothed me.

But at the same time, every reappearance brought another goodbye, and with it, more fear, more uncertainty, a return to grief-stricken longing. What if my luck had run out? What if this time, he was gone for good?

It ended up being only a little more than a month that we got to hold on to him, cling to him, in this way. Now I’m just left with that image of him rising up into the clouds on repeat. No new words of his to reverberate; only the longing, the aching, that pierced my heart like a dagger as soon as he was out of sight.

And, of course, the call. The commission.

He’s not on earth anymore, not like he was, at least. So it’s our turn now to carry the torch.

And I’m just not ready for it.

~~~~~

I’m sitting preparing to tie my sandals and leave, but I’m frozen.

I mull over his words, misremembering them, probably. He had said we ought to go out, go everywhere, preach, share the word, share him.

How can I? I’m not like the others who can burst into meetings, all charisma and oratory, and leave the place with a slew of baptisms set up.

I was great at following.

I loved following.

It would be so much easier to preach about him if he were beside me.

“Jesus Teaches the People by the Sea,” James Tissot, public domain

Or better yet, let him do the preaching again. I was always content to sit and listen, to try to make sense of the parables and pronouncements. He made me feel safe. When my mind seemed to me a greater storm than the sea of Galilee had ever seen, he could calm those waters, with a word, with a gesture, a look. Always had, since the first time we met, when he found me stopped cold in the midst of an anxiety attack.

And he waved from afar and he said, “Peace be with you,” and on seeing him, just seeing him, I felt an onrush of hope. Something I hadn’t felt in a long time. A reason to live. A reason to keep going.

It was almost intoxicating, that hope that he shared.

When he asked if I wanted to go with him, learn from him, it was a no-brainer. I didn’t care what it took, I was going to follow him. I didn’t have a spouse, but I left my parents, siblings, friends, livelihood, all of them.

Actually, it wasn’t even difficult. It was reckless. I threw myself headlong toward this person who could offer me peace and purpose.

I was hoping to be an eternal apprentice of that artisan, never with any real responsibility, forever forgiven for my lack of craftsmanship because I was still learning.

That’s what I’m cut out for: to be one of the takers, not a giver.

And honestly, I like it better that way. Being in need, I witness so much goodness, so much generosity and magnanimity. I get to stand there in awe of it.

Because I’m not like that.

And I’ll never be.

I’ll never be extraordinary. I’ll never be great-souled.

I’ll never even be good enough.

If I had some distance from it, I’d see that this was the beginning of the spiral and try to wrest myself away from it. But the thoughts flood in, and my heart is pounding. I feel my breath quicken.

I can’t I can’t I can’t he’s gone he’s gone for real this time I’m never going to be okay—

Breathe.

I wanted him to stay!

The feeling that overwhelmed me as I watched him go up to the sky—longing. Aching.

And then it erupted into rage, childish rage.

I’m so angry at him for abandoning me! And I’m angry at his Father who took him from me! I feel so wounded and betrayed. And I know it’s petulant of me, to want my Lord to stay on earth when he always said he would sit at the right hand of the Father.

I wanted him to be my crutch, no, my mother, I the toddler tugging at his hem for attention.

I hate imagining the rest of my life without him, without that security, that peace. I need him. I’m not ready to go it alone.

But if I long for him, then I need to entrust myself to the path that he set out for me.

Okay, Lord, I pray. I’ll do it. I’ll go. But You have to work with me.

~~~~~

Shaky steps, shaky breath, I go, I preach.

I sit in the shade near the market, trying to make eye contact with passersby in an inviting (and hopefully not creepy) way.

I see a woman who has just bought bread for her family.

Words caught in my throat again.

I don’t know how to start this conversation.

I’m considering just letting her pass by.

But when I look at this woman with her tired eyes and evident determination to care for her family, I realize I want her to know Jesus, my Jesus, my friend. I want to paint a picture for her with my words so she might understand his sheer goodness, his quietude and his rage, his moments of inscrutable behavior that would make us tear our hair out for days after. His incredible imagination, how he’d lie on hillsides looking up at the clouds, hands behind his head as he thought up stories about lost sheep and houses built on sand.

I look at the daily bread she is holding, and I want to tell her about the prayer he taught us.

About his healing.

About his flaunting of convention.

About his perfectly-executed retorts toward earthly authority.

About his peace.

Yes, yes, I want her to know who he was. How he died. How he rose. How he ascended. How he waits for us at his father’s right hand.

And I want him to know her.

He knew me in my anxiety, in my vulnerability. If she’s open to it, he could know her that way, too.

“Hi,” I manage. I feel like I’m gonna puke.

~~~~~

Sometimes I take days off. Sometimes the anxiety is too much. I’m on the floor again in a pool of my own tears, bitter at my Lord, wishing Jesus were just here.

But in the end, I want to tell them of this Jesus for whom I long.

So I pick myself up off the floor and go.

“He was my friend,” I say. “I was so lucky.”

Top art: “The Ascension of Christ,” Giotto, public domain

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