What’s So Queer About the Ascension?

Today’s reflection is by Bondings 2.0 contributor Allison Connelly, whose bio is available here.

Today’s liturgical readings for the Solemnity of the Ascension can be found here. Note that for some dioceses where the solemnity was marked last Thursday, today’s readings at Mass may be different.

There’s something incredibly queer about the Ascension. This ancient feast, observed as early as the fifth century C.E. and celebrated in some places last Thursday, is marked this Sunday, too. What stories do today’s readings tell—and why are these so queer? Let me explain.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus promises to be with the disciples always, to the end of the age. In Acts, Jesus tells his disciples that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and he is then lifted up and hidden from their view by a cloud. Two strangers dressed in white pop in to tell the disciples, “Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way.“ Importantly, in our second reading – which gives no particular account of the act of Ascension, but an image of its heavenly result – describes Jesus seated at the right hand of God, as head over the church, “which is his body.”

So to clarify: Jesus will be with the disciples always, but not bodily, and Jesus is also bodily in heaven, and will return bodily from heaven. Right? Ok. But wait: his body is on earth, because his body is the church. And when Jesus leaves, the Holy Spirit appears, swapping one Person of God for another. But then again, Jesus doesn’t leave, because he says that he will be with the disciples always. How do we make sense of so many seeming contradictions?

As I said, the Ascension readings seem very queer to me. First, the body of readings is about transition and transformation: from earth to heaven, from Christ to Spirit, from human body to church-y body. Who understands this trans-ition and trans-formation more than queer and trans people? We constantly transition and transform: our wardrobes, our make-up, our pronouns, our names, our identities, our gender presentation, our politics, even our fundamental self-understanding. Jesus instructs his disciples – and, by extension, all of us – to bear witness to him, to the Divine, and this is our witness as LGBTQ+ people: that transition and transformation can, at their best, bring us closer to what is true, what is authentic, and what is human.

These readings are queer to me in another way, too, in the sense of “queer” as a verb. When used as a verb, “to queer” means to intentionally subvert or challenge our normative and binary assumptions and systems of operation (including but not limited to our defaults of hetero- or cis-normativity), often through absurdity or exaggeration, opening new possibilities that blur our boundaries and allow space for fluidity.

If the Ascension isn’t “absurdity” and “exaggeration” I don’t know what it is! Jesus is talking to his disciples, then suddenly raised up physically above them, then hidden behind a cloud, and then two strangers show up out of nowhere and start lecturing his friends? I’ve seen drag shows with less drama.

In the Ascension, and in the stories we encounter today, everything is “yes/and,” challenging our normative, human fixation on “either/or.” Jesus has left us and is with us always. Jesus’ body is in heaven and his body is the church on earth. Jesus will return physically from heaven and is present now, mysteriously, through the Spirit.

Queering is also “subversive” and “opens new possibilities,” which I find abundantly clear in the Ascension. When Jesus ascends bodily into heaven, he subverts all of our binary expectations about the separation of what is “human” from what is “Divine.” With his physical body in heaven and his earthly body as the Church, he opens new possibilities for our human bodies to participate in the life of Christ through ritual and community. We are promised that Jesus will return the same way he left: in community, subverting our societal obsession with individualism and personal accomplishment. While Jesus takes his physical leave from his friends, he promises to be with them always through the Spirit of God, opening new possibilities for fluidity in relationship.

In the Ascension, Jesus queers what it means to be present with, for, and among each other. He queers our understanding of bodies, physicality, and permanence. He queers the distinctions we try to make between the many forms and faces of God in our world. He queers the boundaries that we have constructed between heaven and earth.

In doing all this, Jesus invites us into the queer rhythms of Divine accompaniment, the queer mystery of Divine embodiment, and the queer practice of life in the Trinity. May we accept this invitation to follow the queer way of Jesus. May we always bear witness to his life and love as our full trans-itioning and trans-forming selves. And may we feel the presence of God within us and around us, in our humanity and our spark of divinity, until the end of the age.

Allison Connelly-Vetter (she/her), May 21, 2023

2 replies
  1. Alexei
    Alexei says:

    Thanks, Allison. Your reflection reminds me of Michela Murgia’s book.
    GOD SAVE THE QUEER: Feminist Catechism by Michela Murgia (in Italian, but English on eBook)

    «I would like to understand, as a feminist, if the Christian faith is really in contradiction with our desire for an inclusive and non-patriarchal world, or if instead it can’t even show itself as an ally. As a Christian I trust that faith too needs the feminist and queer perspective, for revelation will not be accomplished until every single person is given the opportunity to feel God’s generative gaze upon them as God declares what God sees ” it’s good”.

    Is it possible to be a feminist and a Catholic at the same time?
    Michela Murgia, a Catholic, thinks so. And this bold pamphlet, popular and highly cultured, challenges common sense, and with lucidity and irony explains why.

    How do you keep your Catholic faith and your feminism together? It is a question that Michela Murgia hears constantly. It is the same that LGBTIAQ+ believers pose and that anyone who has to compromise between their conscience and doctrinal precepts, for example regarding abortion, euthanasia, assisted fertilization. To answer it is necessary to understand which aspects of life and faith are really in contradiction, and above all if certain teachings are not simply a historical legacy to be re-discussed every day in the light of the Gospel and one’ss: own intelligence. On the other hand, the same God of Christians is contradictory: he is divine but also human, he is one but also triune, he is omnipotent but died on the cross. Starting from the re-reading of the Creed and drawing on her own personal experience – her child self full of doubts, but also her grandmother, mother, aunt, the women with whom she encountered faith – Michela Murgia provides the tools to address some of these antinomies, and shows how the practice of the threshold, which rejects belonging to a single enclosure, i.e. queerness, is a Christological practice. Accepting it as such means recognizing that “the border does not surround us, but crosses us, and that what we perceive as a contradiction is actually a fertile space whose vital potential we have not yet understood”.

  2. Donna
    Donna says:

    Allison, I loved your reflection! I never thought of ‘queer’ as a verb but it makes a lot of sense and, in fact, opens a whole world of understanding for me. Thank you!


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