Somewhere near this day four years ago, I was sitting on a commuter train at the Fordham Road station, right next to the university from which I’d just graduated. As the doors closed and the train slowly pulled away I pressed my head against the window, trying to capture one final glimpse of the campus that had been my home.
Physically, I could have been described at that moment as: sunburned, exhausted, and a more-than-a-little hungover. Emotionally? I was wrung out like a wet towel. My attention was only distracted from the sharp grief of parting by the gnawing uncertainty in my mind: what comes next?
This year I sat in on commencement week activities at Saint Louis University with a bit more emotional distance than I’d managed at my own. Even so, I’ve talked with enough outgoing seniors to remain convinced that our experiences are more similar than different. There’s a sense of joy and excitement in these seniors, and rightly so. But there’s also a sense of loss, and more than a little anxiety, about moving to a new place, starting a new job or school program. All the feelings that accompany the starting of a new life are rushing through them, and all the while these soon to be graduates are marched from one event to another, enduring speeches and handshakes and tearful embraces all along the way.
For me, nothing sums up the dissonance of the graduation experience quite like the commencement ceremony itself. People are marched into an arena surrounded by their best friends, gathered up and swept into rows as one class. Two short hours later they file out again, on the brink of dispersion, a breath away from being scattered for the final time.
The near proximity of graduation to last Sunday, on which we celebrated Jesus’ Ascension, helps me figure a bit of this Christian mystery. Having never seen someone physically rise into heaven, the celebration of Jesus doing so often remains (if you’ll forgive the pun) a bit beyond my grasp. Often I find that we Christians compensate by crafting sensational representations of a triumphant Jesus (or serene scenes of calm Jesus) rising into wooly clouds softened by pastel colors.
This has never made a lot of sense to me.
Whenever I can get close to wrapping my mind around the Ascension, it feels a lot more like a graduation. A group of people, graduates or disciples, take your pick, are propelled toward an inevitable conclusion, swept along on the wave of farewell speeches and parting events. And then it all comes to the most abrupt of ends. The parting can be joyful, it can ring of triumph, but it also comes with real sadness and a deep uncertainty. I pressed my sunburned forehead to a train window; the disciples stood looking at the sky.
More often than not our Christian mysteries ask us Christians to bend our imaginations, to stretch to make sense of truths and stories far beyond our typical experience. Sometimes, the only way I can get there is comparing the beautiful, if confusing, truths of the Gospel to something a little bit closer to home.
This week, it was just a little easier than usual.