Recently my daughter Risa has begun a new chapter in her life. She’s begun to sleep over at the homes of her friends. And so, Meg and I have been experiencing the strange new sensation of waking up in the morning and going to her room and remembering that she is not there. This is the next natural step in a process that began that morning, over four years ago, when we first dropped her off for a few hours at the home of a friend who does child care. And we can expect that with each year that passes the absences will continue to grow longer and more frequent. It is becoming easier to imagine the day when she is grown, and her presence is the exception, rather than her absence.
When you think about it, absence is one of the salient experiences of our lives. Our bodies occupy a single point in space, like a mote of dust swirling in the infinity of the places where we are not. Each moment of present time is like a tiny boat drifting across the ocean of a past that is gone and a future that has not yet come. And as real and compelling as our relationships and interactions with other people are for us, we are absent from the lives of those others, even the ones we are closest to, as much if not more than we are in them.
Perhaps when we think about these things we know what the apostles felt like, watching Jesus disappear from their sight into the cloud. From the time they had first met him they had been drawn in by the power of his presence, by his proclamation of a kingdom that had finally, definitively come. In him they found that the spirit of the prophets, so long absent from Israel, had not only come back but in spades. In him the old promises of what would happen someday in the future, of return from exile, of a new King to sit on David’s empty throne, seemed to be coming to fulfillment.
Then he died. For two days he was nowhere, or if he was anywhere he was in the land of death, where nothing is remembered and from which nobody returns. But then he came back. “He is not here,” said the angel to the women at the empty tomb, which is to say, “He is alive, but not in the way he was.” For forty days he was here and then gone, appearing and disappearing, suddenly present where his absence was most keenly felt, and then gone again.
The apostles kept waiting for him to pick up where he had left off, as if his death had been just a kind of temporary setback, a flat tire that had been fixed. But now, as they see him go away again, it is suddenly clear that the destination of their journey is not what they had thought. He is lifted up before their very eyes, not suddenly vanishing but disappearing gradually from view on his way to…someplace else. Which is where he still is today. Not gone. Certainly not dead. But someplace else. Someplace where he is alive in a way that only God can be alive, where he is present in a way only God can be present.
Where is Jesus now? Someplace which is not a place at all, because it is not limited by the extent of space or the duration of time. Just as the division between Divine and Human nature is overcome in Christ’s Incarnation, just as sin and death are transformed in his Cross and Resurrection, Jesus’ Ascension into heaven is where God’s grace reduces to zero duration and extension. We can’t know any world but the one our minds construct out of concepts of space and time, this world of the speck of dust dancing in infinity and the tiny boat drifting across the bottomless ocean. Where Jesus Christ is now is not in this “world.” But his absence is the fullness of his presence. The “someplace else” is the Glory of God.
Yesterday, I went with the elected lay leaders of St. John’s to the Bishop’s Ranch up in Healdsburg where we held our annual board retreat. We went someplace else, so we could get a fresh perspective that would help us be more effective leaders. But we took this place with us. We were in beautiful surroundings on a forested hillside overlooking the vineyards that line the Russian River valley, but the whole focus of our prayer and our conversation was this community at the corner of 5th and C in Petaluma. And Jesus’ ascension into heaven is like that.
He goes up out of this world to another place, but he goes in his body. In the gospel passage from John we hear today, Jesus prays on the night he is betrayed. His public work is done. He has eaten the Passover with his disciples, and washed their feet. His betrayer has left, and he has instructed his disciples on what is to come. And now he prays: “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me…” All that follows is the answer to that prayer.
On the cross, God glorifies the body of Jesus, lifting him up as the enduring sign of forgiveness and compassion for the depths of our suffering and blindness. On Easter morning, God glorifies the body of Jesus, raising it from the bondage of death and hell. And on Ascension Day, God glorifies Jesus again by exalting him bodily to heaven, restoring the Son to the glory he had before the existence of the world. But now he shares the glory of the father in a human body.
And, as Jesus says in his prayer, all this is consummated in us. The upward movement of the world into God in Christ is followed by the downward movement of the Holy Spirit, bringing God into the world. Through this gift, Christ is glorified yet again in us, in the communion of those who believe in his name. We are his body that transcends the extension of space and duration of time, filling the gulf of absence with the presence of glory.
Every time we celebrate Holy Communion, we sing of the holiness of God, saying “heaven and earth are full of your glory.” This hymn comes from the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly throne, and the Eucharistic preface says that we are singing the same song as the angels and archangels who stand in attendance on the Most High. Thus the song does what the song says. Heaven, the someplace else where Christ reigns, and Earth, where his body is broken bread and poured wine, are united in the Spirit, in the fullness of his glory.
This same Spirit unites us in one glorified body with absent brothers and sisters throughout the world, transcending the divisions of tribe and language and nation. Likewise with our departed loved ones, and all God’s holy people of ages past and all who are yet to come. All are present, all united in a single symphony of praise that fills creation and rings through eternity, “all of us”, as Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, says “with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” Come Holy Spirit, that we may see the world in this light, not as the desert of your absence, but as the luxuriant garden where you dwell.