May 8, 2024, 6:00 AM

Franciscan Fractals: “Ascension’s Work”

Contemplating today’s culture with the wisdom of Jesus and St. Francis

Then [Jesus] led [the disciples] out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. Luke 24:50-52

Art often helps us to visualize and make sense of what might be confusing to our intellect. The image of Salvador Dali’s Ascension of Christ brings into focus a view of Christ from the bottom up. I have often wondered what the bottom of Jesus’ feet must have looked like when he ascended into heaven. Were they clean? Was Jesus wearing sandals? Were the holes in his feet from the crucifixion still noticeable, or where they completely healed? While we can only speculate as to the answers, what is certain is that Jesus was not around for very long. He appeared repeatedly for 40 days to his followers and then, by some accounts, quickly ascended from a hill top to disappear in a cloud.

So, what was this Ascension really about? Jesus had risen from the dead. He could have remained around forever, and yet, we now see him “disappearing” from view. Could he have created other miracles and healing? Was he abandoning those whom he loved? Why leave now?

The most faith-filled answer is that Jesus was preparing the way for those who would follow him. They were to begin doing THEIR work, through and with him, in restoring the world to its eventual completion in love. The Ascension was not so much about Jesus, but about US. This includes the disciples, the St. Francis’s of the world, and ordinary folk like you and me. Jesus had done his piece.

Most likely the followers of Christ looked up into the sky and asked, “Now what?” The “now” means for us (as followers of Christ), “right now,” and the “what” means, continuing to do the “work” of Jesus. The underlying power to do the work would come shortly in the outpouring of the Spirit of Pentecost.

Another historical work of art from music may help elucidate the Ascension. Italian composer Giacomo Puccini wrote La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca. It was during his battle with terminal cancer in 1922 that he began to write Turandot, which many consider Puccini’s best work. He tirelessly worked on the score during his final days, despite the advice of friends to rest and save his energy. When Puccini’s sickness worsened, he said to his disciples, “If I don’t finish Turandot, I want you to finish it.”

Puccini died in 1924, leaving the work unfinished. His students gathered all that was written by Turandot, studied it in great detail, and then proceeded to write the remainder of the opera.

The world premiere of Turandot was performed in Milan’s La Scala Opera House in 1926, and Maestro Arturo Toscanini, Puccini’s favorite student, conducted it. The opera seamlessly flowed, until Toscanini came to the end of the part written by Puccini. He then stopped the music, put down the baton, turned to the audience, and announced, “Thus far the master wrote, but he died.”

Reportedly, there was a long pause; no one moved. It was then Toscanini picked up the baton, turned to the audience and with eyes full of tears, announced, “But his disciples finished his work.” The opera finished with a thunderous applause, and Puccini’s piece found a permanent place in the annals of great works.

Likewise, in remembering the Ascension of Jesus, we too look up and ask ourselves, “What now? What is unfinished?” The answer is that Jesus ascended so that we could begin completing his unfinished work of transforming humankind by proclaiming God’s Good News of love by our words and actions.

Prayers and Blessings,

Fr. John