The Ascension (There He Goes Again…)

Today’s texts are the account of Jesus’ ascension at the beginning of Acts, as well as “Candlelight,” #134 in The Whole World Is A Single Flower.

Acts 1:1-11 (REB)

In the first part of my work, Theophilus, I gave an account of all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. To these men he showed himself after his death and gave ample proof that he was alive:he was seen by them over a period of forty days and spoke to them about the kingdom of God. While he was in their company he directed them not to leave Jerusalem. ‘You must wait’, he said, ‘for the gift promised by the Father, of which I told you; John, as you know, baptized with water, but within the next few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.

When they were all together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time at which you are to restore sovereignty to Israel? ’ He answered, ‘It is not for you to know about dates or times which the Father has set within his own control. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will bear witness for me in Jerusalem, and throughout all Judaea and Samaria, and even in the farthest corners of the earth. ’

After he had said this, he was lifted up before their very eyes, and a cloud took him from their sight. They were gazing intently into the sky as he went, and all at once there stood beside them two men robed in white, who said, ‘Men of Galilee, why stand there looking up into the sky? This Jesus who has been taken from you up to heaven will come in the same way as you have seen him go.

“Candlelight” (from The Whole World Is A Single Flower)

One evening, Zen Master Man Gong lit a candle by the window in his room. He then asked his attendant, “Which is the true light, the candlelight or the light reflected in the window?” The attendant blew out the candle and said, “Master, what can you do?” Man Gong then re-lit the candle.

1. Man Gong asked, “Which is the true light, the candlelight or the light reflected in the window?” If you were the attendant, how would you have answered?
2. Before Man Gong lit the candle, there was no light. Where did the light come from ?

COMMENTARY: No eyes, no light. No mouth, no speech. If you turn on the light, the room is bright. If you turn off the light, the room is dark.

It is evening and it is dark. Zen Master Man Gong sits in his room. His attendant appears, perhaps with a blanket or some cool water for the revered teacher. In this quiet moment Man Gong poses a sharp dharma question to his attendant – “which is the true light, the candle or its reflection?” The student responds by blowing out the candle, returning the challenge to his teacher. His teacher then answers in kind without words. Unlike similar kong-an exchanges we don’t hear of a “winner” in this dharma combat. Regardless of the quality of the student’s answer, I am left with the impression of a gentle interaction between two followers of the way in the still hours of the night. And this week as Jesus departs (again) I resonate deeply with Man Gong’s question – which is the true light?

It is a bright and sunny day. Perhaps there is a gentle breeze as Jesus and his disciples stand on a hill. Monumental things have happened to this band of believers in the past few months. Rome executed Jesus and he came back to life. Now he is leaving them again, but this time for good. Their hearts are on fire; they clamor with questions. Jesus reminds them, using God’s authority, that they should not be concerned with the future but just this moment. They are not heartbroken like they were at the cross, but they wonder deeply about what is next for them. Jesus sees their discomfort and promises that the Holy Spirit will arrive soon to guide them. Then, without further ado, he rides a sunbeam into the clouds and disappears in a flash of light.

As I imagine myself with Jesus and his Apostles that day, I feel a great sense of disappointment. Jesus, my teacher and preacher, my healer and leader, has left for a place much better than where I remain. He tells me I’m not to know when the Kingdom of God will appear, and at the same time I learn that he will return again. I’m left in the middle, to do God’s work as best as I am able without him, with only a vague promise of the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Jesus will be one tough act to follow. Will the Holy Spirit be his equal? Will this other light be the same? How can Jesus’ reflection on earth, the church, possibly be the same as Jesus being here?

Even without taking this imaginary trip 2000 years back I have my own apprehension about following the Holy Spirit instead of having Jesus here in the flesh. It feels like it would be so much easier if he were here with me, if I could hear the teaching from his mouth, if I could really break bread with him. Following the Holy Spirit and discerning God’s will is not only hard work, at times it seems fishy at best. Why can’t we have the real deal? We are Christians after all, followers of Christ. It’s sometimes very frustrating to just have stories about Jesus in a book. I would really, really like to know him in person.

But he’s not here. Zen practice brings me back to the moment. Coming back to the present moment helps me see where my desire creates more suffering for myself. Jesus is not here in the flesh – end of story. I’ve got what I’ve got – the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the church, and my relationship with God. Zen Master Man Gong reminds me not to get trapped in the questions comparing true light with true light or the past with the present. Jesus knew this when he told his followers, just before he lifted off, not to worry about the timing.

Jesus is Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit. The church is the church.

1.    What did Jesus look like as he ascended to heaven?
2.    Jesus is the light, I am the mirror. What am I reflecting?
3.    Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit. Are they the same or different?

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