The Fullness of the One Who Fills All Things (homily)
May 20, 2007
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23; Luke 24:46-53
I’d like to talk about an experience that I had last month, because I think that it was a little like the experience that the disciples had, at the Ascension. It will be hard for me to talk about, but I have this feeling that I’m supposed to try. I think that I was given this experience to share.
I think that this is how it works. Our faith comes and goes. Sometimes you believe and sometimes I believe and so we take turns telling our stories and encouraging each other.
In fact, maybe this can be my way of thanking all of you who sent cards and notes and letters after the death of my mother last month. I was very moved by your faith and your compassion. Very comforted.
Because my mother died suddenly and unexpectedly, we weren’t prepared, and what made it even harder is how bitter and unhappy she was, at the end of her life and all of her life. In addition to our grief and as a part of our grief, my brothers and my father and I have had to start dealing in a new way with the effects of that bitterness and that unhappiness on us.
This was in Spokane, where I grew up. Mom died on a Friday, we drove up on that Saturday, and on Monday we were coming back, through the Gorge, on I-84. We had just passed the Dalles and were heading towards Hood River, as the hills start to get forested again. It was very sunny and beautiful. The light was on the water.
We came around a bend and there was Mount Hood, the first time you can see it clearly, very white against the blue of the sky, half hidden by clouds. And all at once I was flooded with this intense feeling of joy, of deep joy, and also of something like excitement and anticipation, as if something wonderful was about to happen and already had. It was like an anxiety attack, but in a good way, a wonderful way, and it was completely unexpected and, in a sense, completely inappropriate.
The disciples are filled with joy, Luke tells us, when Jesus ascends into the clouds. They are intensely happy after he leaves. But then, Jesus had risen from the dead before this and had done all these miraculous things, and the Holy Spirit was about to come.
I thought, wait, I’m not supposed to feel this. My mother is dead. She’s gone.
Except that the joy didn’t seem to be coming from me. It seemed to be flowing into me. It seemed to be in the air and in the water and in the trees, it seemed to be all around me, in the world, in the light, and somehow it was coming into me, too. It was flooding me. Filling me. Just this love, this goodness. This joy. As if everything was OK and more than OK, as if somehow Mom was now a part of some wonderful reality or order or plan and so was everything else, every rock and every cell, everything that exists.
"Brothers and sisters," the writer of Ephesians says, "may the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe." That’s how it was, for a moment: hope and glory and surpassing greatness, though not in so many words or in any words--and not so intensely, I have to say, not so unmistakably, that I couldn’t explain it away as something else or even turn my back on it and forget about it. It didn’t last very long. But it was there. Something happened, and for me it was completely new. Maybe you’ve had an experience like this, but I never have, and the more I think about it the more the very oddness of it and the very inappropriateness of it, the illogic of it, has become for me a sign of its authenticity. The more I think about it the more I think it was very like the Ascension, very like an experience of “the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way,” as Ephesians says later.
That’s what happens in the Ascension. Jesus is no longer localized. He is no longer stuck in a particular time and place. Jesus ascends “so that he can fill all things,” Ephesians also says. He ascends into the heavens and fills all the heavens and all the earth, his spirit is everywhere, infusing every speck of matter and particle of light and so infusing us, too. It’s a cosmic vision, and an ecological one, both incredibly vast and wonderfully intimate, and it has to do with both this life and the one to come.
I’ve always resisted focusing too much on the afterlife because I’ve always thought it would take away from the here and the now, from our immediate responsibilities and joys. But suddenly, as I was looking up into the clouds, as the disciples were, as I was looking up at the mountain and the sky, I felt the excitement and hope and joy of the afterlife flowing into this life and making it still brighter and deeper and more beautiful.
And I thought, maybe this is why the disciples were able to do all the things they did after Jesus ascended, why they showed such courage and hope in the face of hardship. Because they felt this. They knew this. The story isn’t over. It’s never over. There’s something greater still and we are all a part of it, every one of us.
And what’s so odd about this is that it was my mother who was giving this gift to me, or it was through her. She gave me the gift of life and now she was giving me the gift of death and the hope, in death, of still deeper life, this woman who didn’t really believe a lot of the time, who was so cynical about religion and about so many other things.
In fact, my brother Tim, who is a fundamentalist, worried with us that Mom isn’t in heaven because she hadn’t believed in some formal way and didn’t go to Church. He worried that she was in hell.
Now, I don’t know how this works, for sure. I don’t think anybody does, not even a fundamentalist. And this experience I had, as I say, could have been a delusion or some kind of wish fulfillment. A convenient fiction. I admit that. But I’ll tell you, the surprise of it and the joy of it was in part the surprise of feeling that my mother, my mother of all people, was at peace and was at home and that somehow it was her telling me and reassuring me, or it was God telling me through her, that we can all be at peace, we can all be at home.
"Don’t think that union lies in being very close to God," St. Teresa of Avila says. "For those, too, who offend him are close, although they may not want to be." This is what I think my mother’s death is teaching me, and what I think it’s my turn to share, that "the best help for holding on to the light," as St. Teresa puts it, "is to understand that we can do nothing and that it comes from God."
Yes, yes, but even more than that. Because the glory does come. The heavens do open. Suddenly and unexpectedly, whether we deserve it not, whether I do or my mother does or anyone does, we are all caught up in the story, we are all caught up in the Ascension, we are all caught up in this marvelous, marvelous light.