Wonder and Withdrawal

John Olson

While working from home, I have taken to spending long hours sitting in my large windowsill with a book or my laptop, basking in the sunlight with the windows open and a cup of tea in my hand. And during this season of separation, I have found that such a perch has brought the unexpected joy of observing the people who pass by on the street below my room. I hear a small child, out for a walk with his mother, as he stands over a sewage grate and, staring into the abyss beneath his feet, exclaims with the poetry of childish wonder his astonishment at what would be an otherwise mundane phenomenon to me. I see the girl with the persistent limp who still finds the determination to go for a daily jog past my window in her characteristically syncopated steps. I ponder the retired couple walking their dog and wearing masks, playing keep-away from the rest of the world with a handhold decades in the making. Each person that walks by my window opens up a whole world: a unique history, a particular set of possibilities and attunements, an ineffable confluence of moods and anxieties and hopes and disappointments. I see these people go by and I am amazed at how the universe momentarily refracts through them in strange new colors like light through a prism.


As I observe these nameless faces at a time when we are all so deprived of face-to-face encounters, I am struck by how quickly the wonder and strangeness of a person fades once we get to know them. As we get a feel for colleagues, friends, and family, we are often so quick to pin a person down, to assume we’ve got them figured out, so that when they invariably say or do something that strikes us as strange or unusual—as “out of character” by our own measure of who they are—we are suddenly surprised or confused, maybe even offended. People are much easier when they are transparent and predictable, but also, it turns out, far less interesting.


In this Easter season, whose undeniable strangeness has become the flavour du jour of Christian reflection the world over, and on this Ascension Sunday in particular, I am thinking a lot about the Jesus who withdraws from our grasp. Of course we would all be only too keen to hem the risen Christ into our dogmatic silos and conceptual categories. We would all love to tell Jesus to his face just what he means to us. But in his resurrection, we remember that Jesus disappears at the moment of his recognition (Lk 24:31); that he tells us not to hold onto him (Jn 20:17); that “he is not here” because he has gone ahead and is waiting for us (Mk 16:6-7). To reach out for the risen Christ, it seems, is inevitably to find ourselves grasping at straws. But I wonder whether, in our ongoing social distance, the reminder of Christ’s withdrawal from our grasp and our gaping wonder at his mystery might remind us to open our eyes a little wider to all whom we meet, even those we might once have found most predictable. People are elusive, mysterious, and delightfully weird. In chasing after an elusive Jesus, then, during this patently weird Easter season, may we take our bodily withdrawal from one another as an opportunity to ponder anew the mystery and wonder of all those into whose presence we long to return.


John Olson