Living with clipped wings

Ascension Sunday

Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Eph 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister, ODM


Happy Mother’s Day to all of you who are in nurturing relationships with children! Like many women, I am not a mother, and so my godchildren are one of the unexpected gifts in my life. Getting to have a relationship with these quirky, creative kids is an experience of joy and wonder and bewilderment. A few years ago, I went to visit one of those families and walked into an unexpected drama. My godchild was about ten years old, right on the edge of the precipice when the imaginative fluidity of children tumbles into the more realistic sensibility of a teen. A few days before my arrival, my godchild had been surfing the internet and had found a site with a series of videos purporting to teach people how to cast magic spells: Among them, a spell which would allow a true believer to grow wings. This kid was the truest of believers. They were a bit disappointed when the wings did not appear immediately, but they were reasonable; they understood that growth takes time. By the time I arrived, they were checking their back almost hourly for the nubs which, they were sure, would thrust out and grow into pinions and become fully-fledged and allow them to take off from the earth. It was charming, but their parents and I were having frantic whispered conversations about what to do when the wings did not appear — how to let them down gently, without crushing their childlike spirit, when their dream crashed into reality: human beings are not made to fly.

But, oh, we wish to, eh? We gaze rapt at birds, cover our cathedrals with images of angels, fly in our dreams from the time we are tiny children. We build flying machines like Leonardo; those who have money try hang-gliding or parasailing; we make up stories about a boy named Icarus who did fly, for a few precious minutes, before he went tumbling into the sea. And birds offer strange consolation. Months into the Covid lockdowns, when the solitude lay heavy on me, I went to Parc du Mont Royal and sat by the lake, and some birds went soaring up into the sky, and my soul lifted with them, too —and suddenly I knew what it was to hope again.

What is all that even about, anyway? I’m not sure, but perhaps it’s the sense that we live with clipped wings. Not that we are less than we ought to be, but that we are somehow unable to be what we actually are. We know ourselves to be warm and imaginative and creative, but time is pressing and opportunities for creativity are few. We plan to do strong and creative work, but find ourselves delivering groceries or editing spreadsheets or making what feels like an endless sea of copies. We yearn to make the world a better place, but the best we can do is gather together a few small coins and pour them into what feels like a sea of endless need. The gap between our hearts and our lives gapes.

I suspect more than a few of us are living in that gap right now, as the heartbreaking crisis of our world push us daily against the rigid, unyielding reality of our powerlessness to make things better. The urgent scientific need to cut our carbon emissions essentially to zero crashes into the power of huge corporations and petro-states. The widening gap between rich and poor stymies God’s vision of the equality and dignity of every human being. Famine and war show us the poverty of the help we can offer, and, sometimes, our inability even to get aid to those who truly need it. Autocratic politicians strip away human rights, invade neighboring countries, and ship asylum-seekers to Rwanda like unwanted baggage. And we, the people of good heart, generous spirit, and high ideals, end up feeling rather like bugs smashed on a windshield. Jesus may have blessed poverty of spirit, the ability to accept graciously the limitations of our humanity, but living in such acute consciousness of those limitations does not feel much like a blessing.

Today we honor the Feast of the Ascension, when the Risen Christ, after forty days of appearing among the disciples, summons them to him, blesses them, and rises serenely into the air — rises serenely as we cannot. Theologians teach us that this is about transcendence — that he rose into the heavens so that he might fill all things. They point out that when Jesus was a living man and even when he was making those post-resurrection appearances, he was limited, as it were, to one time and one place, appearing to one person or small group of people at a time. As the ascended Lord, however, he’s with us always — with all of us.

Maybe, but I’ve never found that explanation all that satisfying. Within the context of my own finite experience, his ascension feels like loss — the loss of the intimacy of encounter which I can have with Bertrand or Jen or Vivian or Jean-Robert, becoming the emptiness only too familiar from the death of those I love.

But I found myself, this year, wondering whether there might be another way to see it. In the summer of1979, an aviator who was also an expert in aircraft bird-strikes discovered that huge flocks of birds — swifts — were hovering over Amsterdam. Using his radar systems, he found that twice a day, just before dawn and just after ten in the evening, the swifts “began to rise,” climbing in a few minutes to a height of 8,000 feet. They would hover there, all together, for about two hours at a time, and then descend to feed. Scientists have since learned that they are doing two things: they are checking the weather and re-setting their internal compasses, re-aligning themselves with wind currents, the earth’s magnetic field, and tiny particles, unhindered by the noise and dust of earth. In the words of Helen MacDonald, “What they are doing is flying so high they can work out exactly where they are, to know what they should do next. They’re quietly, perfectly, orienting themselves.” (Vesper Flights, 165) She adds, “They ascend as flocks every evening before singly drifting down, while in the morning they fly up alone and return to earth together. To orient themselves, to make the correct decisions, they need to pay attention not only to the cues of the world around them, but also to each other.” (Ibid, 166.)

When I read those words, I immediately thought of our lives as Christians. Just before dawn and just after sundown are the traditional hours of prayer, when sleepy monks and weary nuns and dusty farmers step away from the urgent press of tasks into the silence of the stilled world and open their prayerbooks or read their Bibles or sit in silence before a candle-flame and build a hedge of prayer around the world. In simple words, they gather together the broken hearts and spirits and hold them in the love of God. In those times, they are tending the wounds of the world and also re-orienting their own spirits, pushing past the clamor of demands to hear the still, small voice of wisdom.

We need those times, today — not as a “dodge,” the way conservative congressmen in the U.S. offer “thoughts and prayers” after every school shooting when they have it in their power actually to restrict access to the weapons being used. We need those times because for us, as for the swifts, making good decisions requires not just moral fervor, but informed deliberation. One of the hardest things about these times is the degree to which we all know we are being “spun” — with different news sources presenting everything from basic economic information to high-stakes political and ecological situations in ways that are biased and misleading. Talking points echo around us, until we have heard them so often that we no longer think to ask whether they are true. Pulling back, reflecting, re-finding our center, allows us to hear the questions we need to ask so that we can be part of the solution, not just part of the general pile-on. That’s why, from earliest days, the Scriptures have pointed us to the rhythm of work and sabbath: not just as freedom from economic exploitation, but to feed our deepest humanity by prayer and thoughtfulness and human reconnection. Setting aside the pinging media feeds and too-bright screens for good books and nourishing food and time with those we love.

Perhaps that’s what the Ascension was really about: Jesus regaining, not altitude, but the God’s-eye view he laid aside when he took on our flesh and blood. Ascending to the place where he could once again see the weather — all the storms that were headed our way — where he could work out anew exactly where we were and bring to exactly where he is. Taking up once again his work as shepherd, this time not with the clipped wings of his humanity, but with all the omniscience of God.

Or maybe, it really was about joy: the joy of flight, the joy of soaring into the air, the joyful promise that, however acutely we are feeling our smallness now, there will be a future — God’s future — in which we will be able to be — really to be — what we actually are. My classmate Craig, who’s now a Bishop, writes, the Ascension “cuts against everything that is logical, reasonable, and credible. But, beloved, here’s the deal: so does God‘s reckless, wild, and uninhibited love. The Ascension reminds us that faith is not a concept that we believe, but a mystery that we encounter. I may not know how to believe in the ascension, but I am going to live my life as if it’s true[,] as if God‘s love is so powerful in the face of the world’s evil, injustice, and death, that it can pull our whole broken hurting world to the very heights of heaven.” I yearn for that day, for the day when we will all soar, together. Until then, beloved, even birds with clipped wings can sing.

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