Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord
First Reading: Acts of the Apostles 1:1-11
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 47:2-3, 6-9
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 1:17-23
or the Letter to the Hebrews 9:24-28, 10:19-23
Gospel: According to St. Luke 24:46-53
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Luke tells us that the Apostles “returned to Jerusalem with great joy” after they witnessed the Ascension of the Lord. Since we usually equate joy with happiness or pleasure this must seem like a strange emotion to experience after seeing your Savior for the last time. Sadness and pain are emotions that we associate with partings, even when we know that the time apart will be brief. Shakespeare knows this well enough when he has Juliet say to Romeo, “parting is such sweet sorrow” even though she hopes that she is only saying “good night till it be morrow.”
So what part does joy play at such times when an opposite feeling seems to be the more natural response? As he so often does, C.S. Lewis can shed some helpful light on the problem. He understood the importance of joy and even titled his autobiography Surprised by Joy. Typical of his wit, the title has multiple meanings, including his reaction to, at the age of 58, his marriage to Joy Davidman. None could have ever imagined that this avowed bachelor and devout English Christian monarchist could ever be drawn to a divorced American and former Jewish atheist communist.
Joy would die of cancer four years later, leaving behind two grieving sons and a husband whose world had been so devastated by her loss that he doubted not only the love but also the existence of God. In time, Lewis would reemerge as an even stronger believer, but the path was a difficult one, as the memoir A Grief Observed shows.
This was the second great loss in the life of Lewis, his mother having died when he was just 10 years old. Lewis wrote that the death of his mother removed “all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable” from his life. He became himself an atheist, and only years later through the help of his devoutly Catholic friend at Oxford, J.R.R. Tolkien, was he able to come back to the faith of his youth.
Through all of these experiences, the supremely perceptive Lewis notes that to him joy felt closer to a specific sort of sadness or grief than it did to happiness or pleasure. In a letter to a friend, found years later, Lewis talks about joy as something that is the opposite of security.
When the Apostles looked up and saw their Messiah ascending into the heavens knowing that they would never see Him again they felt great joy which, if Lewis is right, was neither happiness nor pleasure – and certainly not security. They did not know what form their apostleship would take nor the martyrdom that awaited almost all of them, but they did know that they would eventually follow their Master to an existence where happiness and pleasure, and especially security, would all be enveloped by an eternal Joy.