Saturday, May 4, 2013



The spring weather was a beautiful this week, and our Freshman Backpacking Project got off to a
good start. But I also kept noticing things that were pretty ugly as well. For example, our anti-catholic local newspaper was gloating on its front page over lurid accusations against a priest and calls for the ouster of our Archbishop. Then there was the continuing investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings as the FBI delved into the dark world of hearts filled with hatred
and destruction. Or the daily heartbreaking articles in the paper about the thousands of people who are still trying to piece together their ruined lives months after Superstorm Sandy. The list could go on and on, but you get the point. 

Two ideas helped me keep my bearings in the midst of all the negativity. The first was the Old Testament theology of the Wilderness and the second the upcoming feast of the Ascension.


I’ve already written several times about the Hebrew word midbar, which we sometimes mistranslate as “desert.” It means a trackless place untamed and uninhabited by humans. For the Israelites the wilderness was “God’s country,” where the Lord was totally in charge and they were completely dependent on Yahweh for everything from traveling directions (the pillar of cloud) and food (manna) to military protection against hostile tribes. (You can go to the “labels” column to the left of this post and click on “Wilderness” for more thoughts on this topic.)

Well, when I found myself starting to wander in a land of darkness and anxiety I soon recognized it as the Wilderness, what our Jewish ancestors called the midbar. The bad news is that in the wilderness there are no maps, no sense of being in control. The good news, though, is that I am assuredly in “God’s Country” and can therefore expect to encounter the Lord there. The One Who Saves is waiting to meet me there in the very events that I find so discouraging, frightening and repulsive. So I just kept looking carefully at those experiences to discover the divine presence. And, again like the Israelites in the midbar, I in fact met the Lord there more than once this week.


Thursday, May 9, 2013 is Ascension Thursday. The liturgy of the paschal season has been leading us toward this feast for weeks. And reflecting on the meaning of the mystery of the Ascension has also been a help to me during certain depressing moments.  

In  the na├»ve worldview of ancient Israel, where the earth was as flat as a dinner plate and the firmament was above and the netherworld below, the idea of Jesus’ “ascending” up into a cloud was easily accepted. Too easily, perhaps, because it would then seem to mean that Jesus, taken “up” into heaven, had gone away from us and was thus no longer present.

Fortunately our modern astronomy won’t allow us to settle for this simple picture of Jesus rising “upward” to heaven. And that’s great, because we’re not as likely to misinterpret it as meaning “Jesus left us.” We are forced to look for the meaning of the event rather than simply settling for “Jesus went up into the clouds of heaven.” And it is precisely this theological meaning that has been a comfort to me at times this past week.

The feast of the Ascension celebrates Jesus’ passing beyond the familiar dimensions of time and space, beyond the reach of our senses and into the presence of the Father. So what? Well, think about it: This means that Jesus is no longer bound by time and space, so he is now more present to us than he ever was previous to the Ascension. He is in our hearts and bodies, in our friends and our foes, in the spring breeze and, mysteriously, in the tragedies of hurricanes and demented terrorist bombings. Now, I may be repelled by the idea that God could somehow be present in those terrible things, but that’s far more comforting than the alternate view – that God is totally absent from those tragic times and horrible places and that I am left to face them on my own. I don’t want a God who’s only present to me when times are good!

So as I struggled with this week’s headlines I was consoled by the presence of the Ascended Lord who I knew was right in the midst of the whole mess. And I knew that somehow he was standing beside me as I was wandering in that mysterious trackless wilderness, the midbar, “God’s Country.” 



  1. I struggle with this too. Call me crazy but something I think it is easier for Christians to deal with Christ crucified than Christ risen. It's easier to turn our back on someone being crucified, or not show us as the other disciples did. Sorry, John, but I don't believe you that you, the beloved disciple, was there, just as I am suspect of you being his favorite. But, I do appreciate your humility for being reluctant to show us up at the tomb. Does anyone else think about how wrong Paul was in saying that Jesus first appeared to Cephas, then the Twelve? It was Mary and the women at the tomb. But I suspect at either Paul didn't know about them, or he just didn't think women were worthy of such a thing. I don't know. Maybe the first one to see Christ risen was the Roman guard who was posted at the tomb and it scared the heck out of him.

    I admit that I still have a hard time believing that Jesus is present at all, given the events listed in this post and not to mention hundreds of other reasons. Not to mention all the ill that's been done in his name for the last 2000 years. I don't really need to go into the reason for evil in the world, but only need to point to that the church has never really lived up to it being the body in a substantial way. Which person of the Trinity is responsible for this? But...sorry for digressing...I really really really want to believe. Really. The meaning for the Ascension is something more important than whether or not it really happened. I don't know what it means yet, though.

  2. What helps me is believing that suffering is pointless unless you learn something from it. If you do not learn from suffering, whether it be your own or the suffering of others in general, then suffering is nothing more than a waste of time that has been nothing but a negative experience, instead of a more positive, or realistic (I like this one better) one.

  3. And by learning something from it, I mean continuing to do so throughout life, no matter what the suffering is, when it happens, and the other details of it.