As I woke up this morning and thought about this being Ascension Day, that day we remember when Christ ascended into heaven, my mind kept drifting back to the events of yesterday. The poet, author, civil rights and social justice activist Maya Angelou died peacefully in her sleep at her home in North Carolina. She was 86 years old. There was no immediate cause of death given. In fact, word is that she was laughing and planning for a Fourth of July celebration when she went to bed on the night of May 27th. She'd been frail these past few years, and those close to her were saying her death wasn't unexpected. Just not now.
I imagine that this sadness and bewilderment at the death of such a huge figure in American literature and life was similar to how the apostles must have felt when Jesus physically leaves them again to ascend and sit at the right hand of God. He's spent time preparing them for this departure with the promises that another is coming to dwell with them and give them the strength and courage to carry on. And then he is gone, lifted up into the sky much the same way his Jewish ancestor Elijah rode off into heaven. Like those of us who saw the news of Angelou's death trickling in over social media feeds, I wouldn't be surprised if they were staring, blinking up at the sky, and thinking, "We heard him say he was going to go. But did it have to be now?"
In a word, yes. Yes, he has to go now. He has given all that he had. He has equipped them with the knowledge and wisdom to live life. Now, it's time for them to do it. And he gives them that reassuring message from the end of the Matthew Gospel, "Remember I am with you always to the end of the age."
My introduction to Maya Angelou's writing came in prep school. We had to read books over the summer that would be the subject of our first test in our English classes upon our return to school. For me, the slow reader, this felt like a dreaded compulsory exercise, and not a pleasant one at that. But usually there was at least one book on the list that I could enjoy. Angelou's "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings," was one of those books for me. Her autobiography gripped me with its frankness about rape, and the ability of the young Maya to claim her place in a world of sexism and racism. Later in college, I discovered what a gift I'd been given to have read Angelou in high school. Many of my classmates in a junior level English course which doubled as Women's Studies had never read her, or Richard Wright, or even Malcolm X (I had chosen to read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" in the 8th Grade.)
Yesterday's news of Angelou's death left many on Facebook devastated. Some of my friends changed their profile pictures to a portrait of Maya Angelou. Lots of them posted messages and videos of interviews with her and some of her poetry readings.
One of her poems, "Still I Rise," seemed particularly appropriate for Ascension Day.
Much in the same way that Christ's final departure from the planet and from his friends is an invitation for them to live on in the spirit he shared with them, I feel that we, who held Dr. Angelou in high esteem as a poet voice for our country, are now invited to heed her words of wisdom and live into them. It is one of the comforts an artist leaves behind: the body of their life's work when their soul has left the physical body to become part of the heavenly body. Maya Angelou used words and her voice to guide us into that same direction of Christ to live life, and not be boring. Let's do it!