The Ascension is a soft-spoken Catholic feast about dwelling in a prolonged and reoccurring Advent.
More and more, I feel like all feasts eventually collapse on each other, but today the feast of the Ascension feels unique because of its peculiar absence, its anti-climatic and even surprising exit.
Birth, Death, and Resurrection is much more straightforward. It covers all the bases and leaves no loose ends.
But there’s more? Yes, yes, there is. Salvation history is an infomercial.
Like the Resurrection, the Spirit is promised and coming, but it won’t come easy: only through the negation of the Ascension, only after the Son leaves us again.
The Ascension resembles Good Friday.
I wonder if Jesus felt sad leaving his disciples, leaving the world he was sent to dwell amongst. There is no Agony in the Garden to pair with the Ascension. I wish there was.
The glory of the Ascension must have been something else to see en vivo, and the story does fill me with that sense of glory, sometimes. But today I can’t stop wondering about how it felt to be separated again, how it was a “goodbye” in the limited, but very real and direct, temporal experience.
I said goodbye to Wabash College last year, a place I truly loved, and perhaps loved too much. Today is commencement at Wabash. Yesterday I sat for three hours in my annoyingly bright red, The Ohio State University regalia at our UND commencement, reading the Paris Review, thinking about how nice and painless it felt to be so detached to UND. There was no Ascension there. No goodbyes.
Detachment can be like morphine. It deadens the pain and makes you feel loopy. So maybe goodbyes are on my mind and that is why the Ascension has gone from glorious to melancholy.
Either way, there is something richly maternal about this quiet feast, caught between and propelling us from and towards Easter and Pentecost.
Whereas Good Friday showed us the agony of birth, the Ascension shows us a delay, an undramatic intermission in the labor of salvation history.
The Son returns to the Father and leaves us in a room, with his Mother, to pray for and wait on the Spirit who will give birth to the Mother who will outlast the Mother of God: the Church, the Mother of Us. The Spirit takes the temporal place of the Son after his Ascension as the Church replaces Mary after her assumption.
When I was a boy I used to be more celestial about my curiosities. I always wondered where Jesus went. I knew where he was headed in a very general sense, but I really wondered what that elevator ride was like. Elevator rides became enchanting experiences for me, everyday sacraments.
I suppose there is an answer living in that boyish wonder that can reply to my blue thoughts today. The Son ascends to the Womb of Love, the place from which all things are born, the maternal home of the Father.
Aside from the limits of language, there is nothing androgynous about this; it is simply the way things are.
We often forget that procreation is a unified, but unequal, act — the process heavily favors and requires the womb, the Mother. There is a womanist priority to procreation, and I think it follows to think about Creation in a similar way.
Since Plato we’ve been instructed to leave the cave, to exit the dark flesh of the womb. There is a certain masculine enlightenment that even sneaks into the metaphysical imagery of the Ascension. But it shouldn’t. After all, the Son is going back to where he came from. He is re-turning and will come again to bring us along.
The Womb of Love is where theosis happens.
Motherhood is often misunderstood and undervalued in purely productive, unimaginative, and masculine terms. A mother is a women who has given birth. Period. Actuality is all that matters. (This nonsense deserves the scolding in of The Crescat’s Mother’s Day reprise.)
This cannot be the whole truth. And partial truths are not true at all.
Of course there is glory in the actuality of children, but there is nothing missing when we consider a fuller and more beautiful account of the Mother: the lover who never gives in actuality without first offering in potentiality. There is a total sufficiency in the offering mother, even when it never takes the form of a gift. There is love there nonetheless. This is why all women are mothers, and why men so obviously are not.
The womb is not verified by its virile fecundity, it is not a loaded gun just waiting to explode any moment. No. The womb exists sufficiently in its absolute potentiality. It is enough to simply be a woman. In a certain sense, to be a women is to embody the ontological act of being in the most graphic and beautiful way imaginable, to open the heavens and catch a glimpse of what is beyond the horizon.
To be a women is to be a mother, an offering, regardless of the gift. This is why so many gender feminists are thoroughly patriarchal in their most sacredly held binary assumption: that biological sex and socially constructed gender are distinct and separated entities. This is also why so many reactionaries against all forms of feminism fall into the very same, distorted structure of thought. As with most things, the issue is metaphysical, and the two opposing sides are sharing company.
Rather than escape the Womb, Christ ascends to it and shows us the womanist direction of theosis, the negative theological current of the Incarnation. The Ascension is a womanist manifesto because it manifests a two-fold Wombdom: the Son returns to the Womb of Love and offers the pure potentiality of the an earthly Womb, the Church ushered in through the guidance of his Mother and his penultimate offering, the Spirit.
The Kingdom of God is not regicidal, but it is matriarchal.
This is why Augustine not only christened Plato; he also reversed the metaphysical cycle of Platonic enlightenment. There are many reasons I could give, but I believe the first of them is in plain view in his Confessions: Augustine contrasts his own, masculine conversion with the almost insultingly caricatured, feminine life of his mother, Monica.
Augustine understood what Descartes would reverse again: nemo est qui non amet, I am nothing without love.
For Augustine and for us all, the offering of a mother is the only offer we can never fully refuse, it is given in absentia, in total weakness, in suffering and in pain and the seemingly inevitable and reoccurring departure. Goodbye, again and again. But this is the only path to redemption, to the dark infinity of theosis: the mystery that is beyond Creation, the ceaseless Nativity of Being*.
The Ascension, then, is an invitation, an offering. A sacrifice?
* I must credit my dear friend, Eduardo Duarte, for the expression — “the ceaseless Nativity of Being” — I borrowed from his book, Being and Learning.