It has been forty days since their master turned the world upside by rising from the dead. But now, it appears, the end has come. An end the apostles could not have anticipated, to be sure. As Jesus approaches his departure they are simultaneously heavy and elated. Elated, as Jesus’ mission is at an end and the kingdom he has been announcing all this time is thus inaugurated; heavy, because their friend, their lord, is now being taken from them a second time. Peter, restored from the shame of denying Jesus, is now witnessing the one he loves most preparing to leave him once more. Is he to be left behind all over again? Maybe for years, maybe forever?

When our efforts fail and come to nothing, when love shipwrecks itself and comes to an end or is unveiled as improper or selfish, we feel a part of us is lost. All endings carry the fear of leaving a portion of ourselves behind in the ash heap of history. Love’s risk is that we may be bereft of ourselves or severed from a secure past. For Peter, in particular, what will he be left with once the master is gone? What will he have to show for all of his zeal when Jesus is no longer leading him from place to place? Bereft of Jesus he will be bereft of himself, left with only a long pedigree of failures and embarrassments. Is this all that will characterize him the rest of his days?

But this isn’t what we see in the moment of Jesus’ ascension or in the days that follow. This time there is no admonition that where Jesus is going Peter cannot follow. Instead, there is joy as he witnesses the one for whom he gave up everything rise heavenward. Although Jesus will be lifted up in glory, he is not leaving Peter behind, and nothing of Peter will be left behind. On the contrary, he will become more himself than he has ever been, because Jesus will be with him just as closely as he has ever been.

In the upward call of Christ, which raises us up with him, there is nothing of us severed. We are becoming whole through the one who was exalted. There are fragments of inauthentic self we want to leave behind, fragments which accreted to the self we were created to be in Christ, but these slough off from the new creation our forerunner is leading us into. Jesus Christ is the cipher through whom our estrangement from our own purest motivations and desiring is overcome. It is in his Spirit we take hold of them for the living.

Ezra Pound’s beautiful lyric passage in Canto LXXXI attests to this:

What thou lovest well remains,
                                                  the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
                                            or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
        Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

These words are both admonition and consolation. What have any of us ever loved sufficiently well? How can we be sure we have reached the mark? It seems to me I have fallen disastrously short. But it may just be that, though our love is pitiful, perhaps “pitiful” just is the measure expected of us. Our pitiful best may be the requisite demanded by the Love who sets us in motion and seats us with Christ in heavenly places, here and now enthroned at a right angle to what is now visible. Our best, though not good enough, absolutely considered, bears the fullest weight of our selves distilled within our acts of love. The objective falling-short that mars any of our actions doesn’t, in the union of Christ and the believer, leave us with nothing; we aren’t thereby hived off completely from those things we have loved. Some overflow of that love’s being lingers over the rest of our lives. In memory there is survival, but in Christ there is something more: refreshment and restoration.

The trace or the remnant of all we have loved well overpowers the settings we find ourselves in, challenging the prosaic or the pernicious with the grace of “Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell.” This is no Satanic boast to make a Hell of Heaven: it is the insistence that the tangibility of grace finds us here and plants its colonial banner in the hell of our fallenness and will not withdraw. For this to be so, it must be God’s doing and not ours. You and I can no more transmogrify a torture chamber into a paradise than we can transform ourselves into cherubim or cherry trees.

But are Pound’s words no more than an optimistic fiction? This stanza isn’t inspired apostolic witness—it is the lyrical invention of a daft and at times pompous wordsmith; a revolutionary in poetry’s modern period, to be sure, but also an apologist for Axis powers of the Second World War. He hardly seems the sort to transmit gospel truth.

But if we’re going to counter the truth one brings to speech with the tarnished credentials attached to their name, then we’ll have to be prepared to consign much of the prophetic and apostolic witness to the garbage heap as well. From Moses to Peter to Paul, God’s word has been entrusted to and communicated by persons we would, on any normal basis, give no credence to whatsoever. So is it possible for the disreputable to serve as conduits for truth and beauty and goodness? If you’re a Christian you already affirm this to be the case.

But is Pound right in this instance? Does what he says here accord with the truth of the gospel? What we find in Jesus’ remarks, preparing his disciples for his ascension, and in the moment it transpires, indicate yes. Following Jesus’ ascension, Peter will proclaim that from heaven the presence of Christ would come to bring “times of refreshing,” in anticipation of the “restoration of all things” we all imagine in our sweetest, most aching longing (Acts 3:20-21). Heaven’s receiving Jesus Christ obviously, then, does not entail a severance of Christ from his own or a loss of the one they have loved, albeit imperfectly.

You and I undoubtedly do not love or do well enough, in any regard. But the Savior is the One who does all things well, and his sufficient loving has secured that which he (and we in him) have loved. In our justification, the perfect loving of Jesus Christ is accounted our own. In whatever ways we have been deficient, our deficiencies are the gap through which he distills his grace and imparts greater ability. Though at my best I love with a measly fraction of Jesus’ love, I am not disowned; though I shrink back and am encumbered with my shame, the humbly born monarch of Heaven will not shrink back, even though he ascends where I cannot see.

Colijn de Coter, “The Ascension of Christ.”

For Christ is not withdrawing—he is venturing further up and further in, to the heart of reality and wedding together Earth and Heaven as they had been, from the very beginning, meant to be; he is inhabiting every dimension of existence and gathering up every broken fragment so as to reunite all that was true and good and beautiful; he is going to the Father so as to fill every emptiness and evacuate all nothingness; he is ascending to a sphere no human being ever has before so as to draw closer to us than he ever had in his pilgrimage in Palestine. In his ascension he is not maximizing the distance between him and those he loves: he is occupying the place humankind was meant to inhabit beside God, living and ruling as his intermediaries.

“I will not leave you as orphans,” Jesus promised; “I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:18-19). In the moment of his saying this they did not understand: How would the world not see him, but they would? Jesus elaborated: “It is to your advantage that I go, for when I do I will send the Comforter” (John 16:7). “Lo, I am with you always” is the final pledge Jesus offers his little flock, but not because he has dissolved into the matter of the universe, available in microscopic quanta of presence, but because the Spirit he has poured out mediates his very corporeality, at the individual, personal level, and beyond that, knitting together the communal body that bears his name and the Eucharistic meal that binds us together as that body.

It is through the Christ that our estrangement from God is overcome and in Christ that we encounter the disarmingly human face of God. But it is in the Spirit that we find our home in the life God shares with us. The Spirit is the One who grafts us into the flesh of Christ and gives us a share in his life and love, in the restoration of the fragments he is shoring up now in heaven as it will be on Earth in the life of the world to come.

The Spirit is the living Love that unites Father and Son and both within the other, and he is the presence of the Beloved in our midst where he does not appear to be. “Though you have not seen him, you love him,” Peter exults; “though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8). And this is only possible because the Holy Spirit makes him present to us, draws us into the heavenly places to his glorious presence. “What thou lovest well is thy true heritage.” Our inheritance isn’t a bounty yet to be disclosed: it is the One who loved us to the uttermost at a particular, decisive moment, and has never flagged in that love in all subsequent time. He is our reward, and all things are in him, especially, perhaps, those beloved things we feared we had squandered and lost.

Ecclesiastes 3:15 offers a glimpse of this: “That which is has been already, and that which will be has already been, for God seeks what has passed by.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer commented on this passage that

This last verse apparently means that nothing of the past is lost, that God seeks out with us the past that belongs to us to reclaim it. Thus when the longing for something past overtakes us—and this occurs at completely unpredictable times—then we can know that that is only one of the many “hours” that God still has in store for us, and then we should seek out that past again, not by our own effort but with God.

All we have loved is encapsulated in the Incarnate One, the archetype and representative of the creation, the source and engine of all loves loved well. In Christ the creation’s potential is realized and offered at last to God in anticipation of being redistributed back to his creatures. The fragments of what could and should have been are restored to wholeness and grafted onto the source of its life. His ascension is not our deprivation of what we have loved well but its accomplishment and enlargement, for the broken shards of our imperfect loves are even now being healed and reunited.

What remains following Jesus’ ascension isn’t Peter’s failure, or John and James’ asinine power plays, or any of the comical ineptitude that has characterized the apostolic ministry as a whole up to this point. The sinful stupidity that mars our efforts to love and belong and contribute isn’t what remains, either. Peter is simply the Rock; John simply is the Beloved Disciple; both fiercely alive with the love that Jesus Christ was and still is to them. These qualities which have steadily hummed beneath the surface of their more notorious missteps and failures of character now eschatologically define their character. You and I aren’t accounted as the shameful should-have-beens our lives amount to, either: we are esteemed as heirs, as siblings to the Lord of All. And the Christ is assuming the throne of all that is to ensure that definitive assessment is recognized and ratified by all.

Yes, there is a sense in which the Feast of the Ascension is another Thursday in another year with nothing intrinsic to it to effect renewal. But that’s dreadfully un-magical thinking. Even if there isn’t anything entwined within the DNA of this day, cannot the memorial of the Savior’s enthronement serve as a vehicle for the grace that does transmute what is frail and stupid and paltry and sullen into something more eccentric, more beautiful-in-self-sacrifice? Does the God who gestated within the womb of Mary really have such disregard for the momentousness of the crest and trough of time and our passage through it as we strive to become ourselves?

Never. For the only God is the One who took on our frame and adorned himself with dust. So let this day be for you what the twelve stones from the Jordan were for the Israelites: a testimony to the lively God who invades history from within.

Lord, grant us light and wisdom-we-have-not-gained-for-ourselves and power (just enough, just for today) to love well and to not falter in diffidence. Lead us heavenward and purify our loves that we may sew grace earthwards. Overturn our assumptions of what has been lost and what is past salvaging. Grant us all a fresh sense of your ascension. May this day, this witnessing of you rising to take the helm of the universe, impart new life into dry bones. Amen.