Yesterday, May 25th, 2017, was Ascension Day, the fortieth day of this liturgical year’s Easter celebration. In the following, I attempt to give a brief explanation of this Christian feast day then reveal my spiritual encounter in regards to ascension. I say attempt because it is so hard to describe the indescribable. This is a condensed version of what I witnessed, felt, and believed following the passing of my father, Frank Thomas Snyder, laid to rest on June 8th, 2006. My father earned seventy-six years of being an earthy man full of passion for all things living, all that moves and grows in humanity and nature. He swiftly fell back into the earth while mowing his lawn, grooming the ground, the backyard that hosted his frayed yet favorite lawn chair where he read many westerns and dreamt of cowboys.
Although his outdoor death was so shocking at the time, I believe it was the way his body was meant to return to his own Heavenly Father of whom he placed his utmost faith. Forty days later, his soul soared. May his Memory be Eternal!
Symbolically and spiritually, forty days represents many biblical tribulations, reconciliations, transformations, and probations. The fortieth day of bodily death is highly important to the Christian who believes this to mark the departed’s judgment day. Specifically relevant to the soul is that the fortieth day commemorates Christ’s Ascension after His Resurrection. Ascension Day is when the recently deceased may ascend to be taken up in the clouds to meet the Judge, our Savior, and Master, and thus be with Him forever (1Thes. 4:17).
According to Scripture, over the course of forty days (prior to the Ascension) the Resurrected Christ appeared to his eleven remaining apostles, multitudes of disciples, and followers. He also stood alongside disbelievers and doubters. He arrived as proof to try to convince the world that He is indeed the Son of God who trampled death. He shared tales of His Father’s Heavenly Kingdom and instructed others to spread the word.
After the fortieth day, the one perfect human being, Christ, ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. This concludes His thirty-three year-long earthly plight to save imperfect sinners and raise them to be with their Father. This is our salvation.
As a mere mortal, I can only make assumptions about what I deem another mortal’s soul does for forty days prior to judgment. As many ideas as I have on this span of time, I am no theological expert, so beyond these few words, I will keep quiet on the matter. I don’t know enough about purgatory, toll houses, soul sleeps, and other theories of how a soul performs when the body first dies.
I simply have faith that God is good, forgiving, and wants us with Him. I have faith that Heaven is indescribable beauty, peace, and joy. Life after death is truly a mystery that I have no authority to attempt to explain. Only Scripture, tradition, faith, actions, and love can give us a true sense of accepting what is beyond our understanding. It’s a big, magnificent secret treasure that I humbly pray to discover when it’s my time. Thy will be done.
I believe one of the most important memorial services for the soul is on the fortieth day, and that’s when we held my father’s first requiem in July of 2006. In our Serbian Orthodox church this special service is called a parastos (pronounced pah-rah’-stus).
Such a glorious, yet humbling parastos was offered up to my father as our church abundantly crowded with loved ones celebrating his life and death with heartfelt remembrances and meaningful prayers. The multitude of candles lit for his soul dripped with tears of sympathy. What an emotional mourning that fortieth morning.
A lovely family luncheon was held after this memorial service. Following the gathering, my husband, kids, and I drove 100 miles north to return home. Cara was aged four and Elena aged two.
When we got back, I didn’t unpack and do laundry like I usually would after a weekend trip. I needed to unwind and be away from checklists and chores. I joined my family and Italia, our three-month-old golden retriever, at our patio and swimming pool.
The bursting thermometer and cloudless backdrop inspired frothy servings of smoothies and colorful sno-cones. Cara and Elena, our giggly little loves, splashed and played, drenched and sprayed. Pup Italia lapped liquid bullets while tempting the girls to squirt-gun her down, mafia style.
While refreshing my feet poolside, Cara kept squirting Italia’s furry breast as I spied the black butterfly hover then merely skim the water. This plain, yet somehow extraordinary, silhouette had become a part of our summer patio company, and his presence mysteriously captivated me. He, whom I perceived as male, seemed as thick as midnight yet lightly fluttered about like butterflies do.
I averted my gaze to this particularly unremarkable fella flickering around for his brief interludes. With just a sheen of bluish-green scales outlined in ivory specks, his velvety shadowed wings had little décor. I always expected butterflies to personify rainbows, but I discovered that a less colorful, simpler design can also serve as a spectacular specimen.
Sailing above and then lightly diving to the earth, he lingered brushing my cheek with a kiss. As he resumed his winged dance to the sky, I burst out of tranquility and jolted with a stifling thirst: I needed him. I had to hold on, or I’d dry out from my tears that could potentially flood the pool.
I frantically jumped up screaming, “Get the net! Where’s the butterfly net? We have to catch that black butterfly. He belongs here!” Our puppy nearly rolled into the pool, while my stunned husband and daughters froze. I chaotically shuffled through a basket of outdoor toys for the prized Dollar Bargain butterfly net. I grasped it and leaped and stretched like a clumsy majorette trying new baton tricks. I scooped nothing but the wind. Of course, I couldn’t catch him and had to watch him disappear into the endless sky. I whispered with humble faith, thanks, and love, “Thy Will be done.”
In various spiritual circles, butterflies represent the spirit of the departed. The butterfly dies as a caterpillar, is buried in the cocoon, and enters a new life. As a majestically changed creature, it takes flight in earth before breezing through heavenly clouds.
On that fortieth afternoon after my father’s death, my grief began. I finally accepted that he physically left this world forever. Eternity vs. Nevermore comprise the greatest extreme opposites of time that challenged my clock that somber summer. I could barely consider these temporal concepts and felt like I was drowning when contemplating a soul lasting forever and a body being used again never.
Nearly eleven years later, I still grieve the loss of my father, but I take comfort that he is with God who opened up the heavens to mankind on Ascension Day, when Christ was taken up to heaven.
I also continue to perceive occasional visits by the black butterfly as something special and granted by God. My personal connection and journey with the black butterfly continues to strengthen my spiritual beliefs. I know there is no doctrine or proof in my experience, but when a beautiful black butterfly shows up precisely when I need an “extra” lift, that to me is a divine gift to encourage or reward my faith.
Many people have their own signs, symbols, and things they believe is contact from a lost loved one. Besides the black butterfly, I have felt other spiritual touches in nature via bunnies, birds, dogs, and flowers. If it leads me to spiritual thanks and praise, I consider that faith. God bless us, everyone.
What special encounters have you had that cause you to connect, remember, and give thanks? Memory Eternal to your lost loved ones.