A friend of mine, who is somewhat bitter and cynical about the church, recently remarked: “What the institutional church today is trying to do is to put the beat face on the fact that it ‘s dying. Basically, it ‘s trying to manage a death.
An interesting expression, to manage a death! What he is suggesting is that the church, like a person adjusting a terminal disease, is trying to reshape its imagination to eventually accommodate itself to the unthinkable, its own dying.
He is right, I believe, in saying that the church today is trying to reshape its imagination. He is wrong about what it is trying to manage. What the church is trying to manage today is not a death, but an ascension. What needs reshaping in our imagination is the same thing that needed to be reshaped in the imagination of the first disciples in the forty days that stretched from the resurrection to the ascension. We need to understand again how to let go of one body of Christ so that it can ascend and let Pentecost happen. What is being said here?
Among the elements within the paschal mystery, the ascension is the least understood. We are clearer about the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. We have less understanding of the ascension. What happened at the ascension?
The forty days between the resurrection and the ascension were, as scripture makes clear, not a time of unadulterated joy for the first disciples. It was a time of some joy, but also of considerable confusion, despondency, and loss of faith. In the days before the Ascension, the disciples were overjoyed whenever they recognized again their Lord, but most of the time they were confused and despondent and full of real doubt as they were unable to find and recognize in what was happening around them the Jesus to whom they had once given their hopes and their lives. At one point, they gave up completely and, as John put it, went back to their former way of life, fishing and the sea.
However during that time leading up to the ascension, Jesus slowly reshaped their imaginations. They learned that something had died, something else, far richer, had been born, and now they had to give up clinging to what had been, Jesus’ former presence, so that they could receive him in a new way. The theology and spirituality of the ascension is essentially contained in these words: Refuse to cling to what once was, let it go and let it bless you, so that you can recognize the new life you already have with and within you and receive its spirit. The synoptic gospels teach that to us in their pictorial rendering of the ascension; Jesus blesses everyone and then rises bodily out of their sight. John gives us the same theology, in a different picture, in his description of the encounter on Easter morning between Jesus and Mary Magdala: “Mary don ‘t cling to me!”
Today, in the church, we are trying manage an ascension, not a death. I can easily see where my friend can be confused because every ascension presupposes a death and a birth can sometimes look like a death. So where, really, is the church today?
Edward Schillebeeckx has suggested that we are living in that time, and that despondency, that was felt by the early disciples between Jesus’ death and their realization of his resurrection. We are today where they were, feeling what they felt, walking on the road to Emmaus. The Christ we once knew has been crucified and we cannot yet recognize that he is alive, more alive then before, and walking with us, though in a new way. Hence, as on the road to Emmaus, we also frequently walk with faces downcast, in faith despair, needing Christ to appear in a new guise to reshape our imaginations so that we can recognize him as he is now present to us.
I think Schillebeeckx is right about this, save that I would put things a bit further down that same road. The church today is in that time between the resurrection and the ascension, feeling mostly despondent, with its imagination attuned to a former experience of Christ, unable to consistently recognize Christ in the present moment. The church we grew up in, that body of Christ has been crucified, but Christ is not dead, the church is not dead. Both Jesus and the church are very alive, walking with us, reshaping our imaginations, reinterpreting the scriptures for us, telling us: “Wasn’t it necessary that the Christ, the church, should so suffer ….”
To have faith today is to be in that time between the death of Christ and the ascension, vacillating between joy and despondency, trying to manage an ascension.