I have to admit that Ascension has never been an important feast day for me. When I was a child growing up in Catholic schools, we used to release balloons outside after Mass on Ascension. Watching the balloons dance away into the clouds was a big thrill, but its meaning was largely lost on me. (Also, we later learned that this was a BIG environmental no-no. Stewardship for God’s creation thankfully wins out over liturgical symbolism.)
When I lived in France, everyone had the day off on Ascension. But nobody goes to church. (Ah, the French.)
Today, Ascension remains a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics, but it’s usually celebrated on the Sunday following Ascension Thursday. This always seemed to lessen the importance of the feast in my mind, sadly. At times in my life I haven’t been sure that I even believed in the idea of Jesus ascending into heaven.
So when I was reminded this morning that it was Ascension, I wondered what meaning the feast day could have for me this year. I began thinking about what Christ’s return to the Trinity meant for the life of God. (Ok, I get that he never really “left,” always being God himself, so he couldn’t exactly “return,” but just roll with me here.)
Jesus had gone through an incredible transformation – from Incarnation to maturation to crucifixion to Resurrection – and now he was returning to the Godself from which he came, to the divine dance of the Trinity. What did that mean for God?
My musings reminded me about process theology, which I first heard of in graduate school. I was scandalized for a while after learning of the notion that anyone would dare to argue that God could change. The very definition of God meant that God was unchanging, right? Omnipotent, unchanging, eternal? Don’t mess with my definition of God.
Then I took the time to read a bit about process theology. And while I’m no expert (and neither do I subscribe entirely to its tenets) I think it poses some fascinating questions about God’s Self and whether God can change, in certain ways.
The Ascension is one of those realities that leads me to believe that God’s Self does change, in some sense. Jesus ascended into heaven in a very different form from the way he came down to earth. Not only in the bodily sense, but in the sense of having experienced the fullness of life as a human – love, pain, suffering, joy, growth, betrayal, gift, death. So by extension, could the nature of the Trinity have changed with Christ’s Ascension? Could the experience of living fully as a human have changed the divine essence?
It’s worth pondering. But here’s where it gets less…vaporous? (As a favorite professor of mine used to refer to systematic theology.)
What does it mean for my life if God can change? I suddenly realized that perhaps some of my resistance to the notion that God could change was really more about my own sense of self. If God can change, and I am made in the image and likeness of God, does that mean I have to change? That change is good and even Godly?
Which is fine when I want to change. But change also terrifies me, as I think it does for most thinking humans. Because change either means that 1) I have to leave my comfort zone and enter into a new and unknown situation, or 2) there is something sinful in myself that I have to overcome or let go.
Yikes. No, thanks.
But thinking more about process theology and the Feast of the Ascension today, I realize that there is a call for me to embrace my own changed self, just as the Father and the Spirit must have welcomed Christ back into the trinitarian dance with open arms.
I have gone through great changes over the past year. The evolution from pregnancy to motherhood. The transition from graduate school to the life of theological work. I am a very different person than I was a year ago, and I don’t think I have fully taken stock of what this means for my life. Some of the changes are obviously positive; some of the transitions have been much more difficult. Many days it’s easier to just forge ahead than take time to reflect on the life-changing transformations I have undergone.
Today I meditate on this idea, how we embrace our changed selves and invite the transformed back into our self-understanding. There is new life to be celebrated, but also losses to mourn. Change is always double-edged. Christ’s Ascension must have been a joyful homecoming, but also a sad final departure from his friends. He loved those who were his own in the world, and he loved them to the end.
If the acceptance of change – and willingness to be transformed by the experience – is part of the paschal mystery, then it is the pattern for my life as a Christian as well. What do I need to let ascend today, embracing it as a new part reunited with my essential self?