The Presence in Absence

Image credit: Ascension of Christ by Eddie Guzman

The absence of his presence, the presence of his absence, like a palpable thing.

After Emmaus,
after Cloepas and his friend had gone back to Jerusalem to tell the others how Jesus had walked and eaten with them,
how he had reminded them of what was said in Scripture,
Jesus himself appeared.

Despite everything that had happened
and all that he had said to them in days past,
they thought he was a ghost and were terrified

“Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”, he says, and then goes through in a miniature demonstration in word and action of what it has meant for him to be with us. 

He shows us, his hands and feet,
how God has taken on our mortal bodies,
how God has been wounded with us. 
He invites touch and he touches
Finally, still sensing their incredulity he asks for some broiled fish and when it is given to him, he eats it.

It is a mystery.

He reminds them of his words and with his presence opens them.

He reminds them of his words and with his Presence opens them
so that they can somehow take the words into themselves
with an understanding that is deeper and more persistent than the understanding of facts.

Finally, when he senses the growing depth of their understanding.
 he tells them who they are to be,
witnesses to this wonder, this compassion,
this longing and love of God for the wholeness of all creation. 

You are witnesses.  We are witnesses. 
Do you feel like a witness? 
Can you imagine what that might mean?

Then in a final lesson Jesus blessed them and withdrew,
carried, as the story goes, into heaven. 
Even in his absence they felt joy.
It moved in them like blood and exercised them like muscle.
The absence of his presence.
The presence of his absence, like a palpable thing.

What a lesson this is, absence of presence, presence of absence. 

Whatever we believe about the ascension it is a thing of genius that it is set out here, to tell us something about Christ and about us;
this last movement of Jesus physical life, his second leaving. 

Because don’t we sometimes sense what feels to us as God’s absence?
And don’t we wonder what it means?

Don’t we, as the memory of a loved one deserts him,
or as our memory deserts us, see a future full of absence? 
Or don’t we as we pray ceaselessly for our child who is lost in one way or another
or for courage and dignity in our own illness sometimes feel absence. 
Don’t we when a marriage ends, or a job feels deadening
or church or prayer seem meaningless
sometimes feel as though the holy presence had dissolved,
had slid its warm hand out of ours,
had retired to some sterile heaven untouched by our pain or confusion.

And sometimes then, because we have taken that verse, “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:10), lifted it out of its place in the whole of the story and nailed it up like a wood plaque on the wall of our hearts sometimes feel that we haven’t been heard or that our faith has failed. 

as though the holy presence had dissolved,
had slid its warm hand out of ours,
had retired to some sterile heaven untouched by our pain or confusion.

Sometimes then we are angry or think it’s all no use. 
We imagine silence as God’s inattention, or weakness or uselessness. 
When perhaps it is silence, a sense of absence, that will lead us to the gift we most deeply need.
So, don’t we need to be reminded that this is not something to fear,
or to fill
or to explain away.
we see it here in Luke that even as Christ seems to ascend,
to be visible no longer,
to become absent,
he is in fact, making the space for more. 

He lifts up his hands and blesses them. 
And we are to be witnesses to this;
to God’s presence, God’s blessing even when God may seem to be absent.
We are to be witnesses to hope, to trust,
to joy even deeper than circumstances that seem to warrant the opposite.

Every time I stand up in Sunday worship or at a funeral
I want to say this:
even though my life does not always describe it, my heart does. 
It holds this witness. 
God is with us; whether in a moment we sense it or not.

 We are witnesses. 
We are not the defenders of God. We are witnesses to the Love that we come to understand in a way that enters our blood and exercises our lives like muscle.

The Ascension seems a strange event, but it is a vital one.
My work is not to explain it; to smooth out each crease of it
so that it lies smooth and comprehensible in front of it. 

No, my work is to hold out my hand and to invite you into the crease that most hooks you, to go with you or to stand by your side and encourage you as you touch it.
It is to encourage your questions,
not to answer them but to share with you how holy they are and how brave it is
– to go into life witnessing without steel-clad answers. 

It is to also offer you ways of entering the silence, prayers, gestures, practices so that you will come often to your own relationship with the God who longs for you.

We are not the defenders of God, we are witnesses to the Love . . .

“Too often,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “[. . .] preachers get into the business of giving answers instead of ushering people into the presence of the God who may or may not answer”1.  This is the presence into which I most long to usher you.  Not that I have a lock on that Presence or that I hold the key.  But that it is that Presence whose saving I have experienced over and over in my own life, in the silent, awkward hurting moments as well as in the joyful ones. 

We creep together up to the edge of this story, looking down on a small group of disciples, out in an empty field, with One they love
and we say what does it mean? 
Why would he leave like that? 
Perhaps we say, how fanciful, or how useless? 

But let us come back, again and again to the divine we can’t always explain, to the creases in the story that may disturb us. 

Let us witness to the wonder of Love that reveals itself even as it seems to disappear,

the Presence of Absence, the Absence of Presence leading us always deeper into Love.

Jesus lifts his arms and blesses us and even as he blesses us, he leaves our sight. 
And we are to be witnesses.  Let us support one another in this sacred task.

When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor, 117.

About Catherine Smith

A retired minister with the United Church of Canada I’ve grown up in church, been ordained and served communities that are small or in transition. I’ve seen firsthand just how powerful these experiences can be in helping to foster meaningful connections with others and the Other, the mystery that holds us all. My greatest hope is that my writing and this website will help you live well in the big questions that face all of us in this beautiful, aching world.

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