Ascension action

As you saw last Sunday, I had my canoe strapped atop my car. I was eager to put paddle in water and explore the waterways around Papineau Lake near the northern border of Algonquin Park, just south of Mattawa.

From Highway 17 at Mattawa, we turned south on a dirt road. The land there still thawing from winter’s grip, the snow-melting runoff left deep potholes and troughs across the narrow roadway. For about fifteen kilometres we traversed the rough and bumpy access road, thankful for the four-wheel drive.

Finally arriving at the end of the road at the shores of Papineau Lake, we still had to portage our gear about half a kilometer through the thick bush to the cabin. I thought to put the canoe in at the water in order to paddle my gear along the shore line and save the heavy climb carrying everything on my back along the trail.

But when I looked out over the lake, this is what I saw all over its surface: Ice.

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Despite the 20-degree Celsius air temperature by midweek, the persistent ice continued to lock out any hope of paddling into the lake. Until the fourth day of our camp-out, the ice prevented us from going to the deepest parts of the lake to fish for the coveted Lake Trout for dinner. We were limited to shoreline casts where a narrow band of water teased us into never-ending hope for a catch.

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After a windy and rainy day late into our stay, we awoke at long last to this glorious sight:

The ice was completely gone. Night and day. Needless to say, I was out on the water in my canoe, crisscrossing the lake and exploring new shorelines. The loons were back. The lake had awakened once more.

In these last few days, the church has recognized the Ascension of our Lord. Some forty days after Easter each year the church recalls when Jesus, after appearing to his disciples following his resurrection, ascends to heaven.[1]

Jesus, here, leaves them for good, so to speak. It is no wonder why the scripture texts in these last few weeks have gone back to parts of the farewell discourses from John’s Gospel, also appointed for reading before Christ’s death.[2]There’s a point to it.

Jesus prepares his disciples for his leave-taking, never easy – a second time, now. Both before his death, and now before his Ascension, Jesus needs to remind and console them – and us – that we are not left alone.

Despite his going away, Christ will come to them no longer in physical form but in the Holy Spirit. God is present now to us in each other– the community, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Why did Jesus leave them? You might wonder: Why should Jesus have ascended to heaven and leave it all in his disciples’ hands? We don’t need to go far into Christian history to see the imperfection (to put it mildly) of Christians throughout the ages.

Jesus was alive and among them. Why couldn’t he just have stuck around – forever? Things would certainly have turned out better, no? Could you imagine how encouraging it would be for his disciples then and now to have Jesus appear from time to time albeit in his resurrected form to guide us, talk to us, lead us, comfort us, in physical form?

All the while the ice remained in the lake, we were confined to the shoreline. We could still fish, to be sure. But the real good catches were waiting for us out in the middle of the lake. For us to do so, we had to get out on the lake ourselves. The ice had to go, first.

If the Ascension didn’t happen, would the disciples ever really believe Jesus’ promise – or have to believe Jesus’ promise – that God lives in them through the Holy Spirit? Would the disciples ever do what Christ commanded them – to go “to the ends of the earth” to be Christ’s witnesses?[3]

If Jesus remained with them, wouldn’t they be tempted to look only to Jesus standing out in the middle of lake – even if there was ice covering it –  and not trust themselves enough to get ‘out there’ to do the job? Wouldn’t they become overly dependent on Jesus for everything and not embrace the gift within them?

“You are my witnesses, even to the ends of the earth,” Jesus says. We need to hear that first word in the sentence: You. Jesus speaks to each one of us here. Each one of us are Christ’s witnesses, now that Jesus is no longer present to us in bodily form.

And, that means, we have to follow through not only with words, but with deeds. When the ice melts, we are called to get ourselves out there into the middle of the lake and start fishing, with the gifts we have.

Over forty years ago, my father flew low over Algonquin Park in a single-prop plane. I was just a baby, and my mother was worried. You see, my father, the pastor of a church in Maynooth, was the passenger squeezed tightly into the small cabin of this plane. It was the pilot’s first solo flight.

The pilot was a member of his parish. Bill, we will call him. For years leading up to this event, my dad counselled Bill who struggled with many personal problems to say the least. Nothing was going right for this guy. At one point in their conversations, my dad asked Bill: “If there was anything you wanted to do, what is it you dream of doing?” Good, pastoral question, no?

Without much hesitation, Bill said he had always wanted to fly a plane. So, my dad encouraged him to get his pilot’s license. Which he did in short order. Again, good pastoral guidance. You’d think my dad’s job was done. Pastor School 101, check.

But when it came time for Bill to fly solo, he naturally asked his own wife to go with him the first time. She flatly refused, which worried my dad a bit. What was it about Bill that she couldn’t trust going into a plane with her husband flying it?

So, Bill came to my father. “Pastor,” he said, “you have been with me through it all. You said words that helped me in my despair. You listened to me when things weren’t going well. You helped me discover my passion. You encouraged me to get my pilot’s license. Now, I’d like you to go with me into the air, for my first solo flight. Would you please come?”

You could imagine why my mother was so worried. With two little baby boys to care for, she feared Bill would crash the plane and she would be left to parent us alone.

But dad went. He might have been justified in finding some excuse not to go with Bill. I think in his wisdom my dad knew, though, that his words had to be followed by actions.

I think in his wisdom, my dad knew that to be a witness to the gospel, it wasn’t merely about believing the right things and saying the right things. It had to be followed up by walking the talk. And this action involved some risk, to be sure, and a whole lot of trust.

May this Ascension Sunday remind us all that the God gives us the gifts we need to take the risk to get out there onto the lake and do the job that is ours, together in and through one another, blessed by God, and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

[1]Luke 24: 44-53

[2]John 17:6-19 (Easter 7B), John 15:9-17 (Easter 6B), John 15:1-8 (Easter 5B) – These texts, part of the ‘farewell discourse’ of Jesus in John’s Gospel, are intended to prepare, encourage and empower his disciples prior to Jesus’ departure. The context of the farewell discourse is Holy Week, especially during the Passover Meal on the night of his betrayal and arrest.

[3]Acts 1:8

Christmas camping

For any one who likes to camp in one of our provincial parks, and wants to secure that ‘perfect’ site for the summer time vacation, better boot up your computer soon! The rule is: you can make an online reservation up to five months in advance of the date you wish go camping.

So you can perhaps understand that along with enjoying the many blessings of this Christmas tide, my thoughts are also going the direction of outdoor summer camping.

And while I’ve never been very successful beating others online to that ‘perfect’ site, my family has enjoyed some beautiful camp sites over the years.

We define a good site as one that, above all, gives us some privacy; that is, there are as many trees, wild grass, shrubs, and distance between our site and the ones around us. Ideally, our site would back onto a green space, a pond, a beach, sand dunes, or a wild growing, dense thicket of bush.

Conversely, the least favourable site would be one from which we could watch the TV show blaring through the window of the RV next to us, or sing along to the lyrics sounding from the radio propped on the picnic table next site over, or play catch-the-ball with the neighbour’s pet whose leash extends across our campsite.

You get the picture. Instinctively, the last thing we want is someone next to us. Even though, as it turns out, those who pitch their tent next to us are more often than not good people.

At Christmas, we hear about and celebrate the truth that God came to us. And God didn’t come to us like a visitor would, and then leave. God entered human flesh by being born into this world. And this “incarnation” as Christians call it, was an event that changed the world forever.

In the Gospel of John we read: “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14). “Lived among us” in the culture of first century Palestine more accurately rendered is: “Pitched a tent by us”. You can imagine the nomadic movement of people across the Judean wilderness. Putting up a tent beside another assumed a trusting relationship, where co-travelers in a harsh environment would seek solace, safety and security – in one another.

This notion of God ‘pitching a tent’ next to us is expressed elsewhere throughout sacred scripture. In the last book of the Bible, we read: “The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). In the Wisdom poetry we hear the voice of the Word that became flesh – Jesus Christ — say: “Then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel’” (Ecclesiasticus 24:8). Of course, the very name given to Jesus as instructed by the angel to Joseph in a dream is Immanuel, which means: “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23 / Isaiah 7:14).

I must confess my human instinct sometimes goes against this Gospel pull towards involvement with other people, and their involvement with me – especially with people whom I don’t know. Like what happens initially at the camp site. The ones who pitch their tent, so to speak, beside me are at first suspect. Could I trust these strangers who come from outside my circle of family, friends and community at home, and intersect with, even intrude into, my life?

Perhaps the answer lies in the mystery of this incarnation, where the Holy Spirit found a home in Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is truly remarkable, when you think about it, how God was born from a human person.

But the popular, religious focus on Mary can be fruitful if that miracle is seen as extending to all of humanity, all of us – not just Mary. Obviously, the infant Jesus was born from Mary. But Mary was just a teenager, a country girl, representing really the common, sinful yet transformed human being in us all, as Christians.

A pre-Reformation era tradition in Germany has recently gained more popularity: It is a ritual that has been practiced mostly in small towns, villages, and rural areas. What happens before Christmas is that each family brings a small statue of Mary to a neighbouring family, where that statue remains in a central location in the household until Christmas day.

This ritual reminds each family that the gift of God comes to us, first of all, since you don’t get a statue for your own home; someone else gives it to you. And secondly, perhaps more importantly, the statue is a visual reminder that each of us is Mary, preparing a place in our own hearts for the presence of Jesus in the Holy Spirit.

You see, when Mary was pregnant with Jesus in that small place within her where the light of the world was gestating and growing – there was no sin. Yes, Mary was sinful as a human being. But within her, too, was a holy place where sin had no power, where she was pure and reflecting truly the image of God in her.

Is that not so, with us, too? Each one of us holds the capacity, within ourselves, to carry the presence of the living God in Jesus. What difference would that conviction make in, not only appreciating the place in our own lives where God’s Spirit indwells, but in others?

The statue of Mary in these households reminds families, that despite all the conflict, stress, misunderstandings and sin so obvious in families of all kinds, especially at this time of year, there is also a place of peace, stillness, and true joy amongst ourselves. We are, at Christmas, reminded by this holy birth and through those familiar characters like Mary, that we can see one another now with what Saint Paul calls the strength of our inner nature, or being (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, Ephesians 3:16-19). We can regard one another, though we are different and unique, with a knowledge and belief that each of us holds a space and a place within that is being renewed and transformed and united in God.

So rather than right away assume the worst, rather than initially write off those intruders on my camp-site, those strangers who ‘pitch a tent’ so close to mine, perhaps I need to appreciate anew the gift in them that appears. Perhaps God is coming to me again, in the guise of a stranger yet one who is truly a lover – one who comes because “God so loved the world” (John 3:16).

Indeed, love has come. Alleluia! Thanks be to God! Amen!

For more information about the tradition of ‘carrying Mary’ at Christmas, please read Anselm Gruen, “Weihnachten — Einen neuen Anfang” (Verlag Herder Freiburg, 1999), p.39-41