This Monday, I was in Florida, enjoying a brief visit with my aunt and uncle. Around mid-day, they took me to visit one of their favorite local places, a “created wetland” that had become home to a vast number of birds, fish, turtles, alligators, and plants. (If you’re wondering what a “created wetland” is, it’s what happens when the local authorities realize they have destroyed a catastrophic amount of their natural wetlands, and begin to build new ones where there were none before.) The place was astonishing: huge tree-islands emerged from the shallow waters, entirely covered in nesting birds: great blue herons, lesser herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, and Florida birds I had never seen before. There were adults and juveniles, and even some hatchlings a week out of the shell, so delicate they looked like they would never have a chance to grow. For all their beauty and nearness, I found myself captivated, over and over, by birds in flight, their white wings silhouetted against the sun, or bent in a dark curve, legs hanging spindly beneath. They beat like a heart: down and up; down and up; down and up and up and up.
Tomorrow is the Feast of the Ascension, the day when the resurrected and risen Christ ascends into heaven to be rejoined with God the Father. I have never understood this feast; it feels to me, not like joy, but like loss. Christ was here among us, eating and drinking, living in easy familiarity with the disciples, and now he is gone, and the most we can hope for is the briefest glimpse of his face in prayer, or in that of another human being. O, I know the theology: he ascends into heaven in order to make way for the Holy Spirit, who comes upon the disciples about a week later and empowers us to do the work of God. But I am greedy: I don’t understand why they can’t both be with us at once.
Perhaps the answer is not theology, but poetry: that heart-stopping beauty of flight. Perhaps Ascension is about Christ being set free, about what is beautiful and holy and good and right and pure soaring above us and playing in the wind and then diving, time after time, to help us in our need. There is something in it of joy, unrestrained by any earthly tie save love.
Rilke wrote, in his Duino Elegies,
But if the endlessly dead awakened a symbol in us,/ perhaps they would point to the catkins hanging from the bare/ branches of the hazel-trees, or/ would evoke the raindrops that fall into the dark earth in springtime. —
And we, who have always thought / of happiness as rising, would feel/ the emotion that almost overwhelms us/ whenever a happy thing falls.
And perhaps the falling and rising must go together. The body that was crushed becomes the one that soars; the heart which had been broken learns to sing again; the kindness that had been scorned now governs the moon and the stars. And we, so leaden, so bound to earth, we shall learn to live more lightly, to tread more gently, to rise, bit by bit, from our mire and clay, until we, too, shall soar.