SOLEMNITY OF THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD (2021)
Psalms 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-14
The disciples in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles describing Christ’s Ascension into heaven, are very much like the young child who, in spite of being told to hold it real tight, lets go of a balloon and watches it go up and up until it disappears over a horizon. There is disappointment and wonder, the same kind of disappointment and wonder which must have been on the faces of the disciples “while they were looking intently at the sky while he was going.” Indeed, they might have stood there forever pondering what just happened, had the occasion (says Luke in the Acts) not provided them with two angels who quizzically (sarcastically?) ask “why are you standing there looking at the sky?” They must have looked as dumbstruck as that small child who cannot help but wonder what happened to her balloon.
We frail humans, and even more so the writers of the Sacred Scriptures, are bound to think of things spatially – heaven is up, hell is down. It takes too much effort to conceive of an entirely unthinkable dimension. It’s the kind of effort we sometimes make when we contemplate heaven. Since no one of us have been there and come back to tell us all about it, we most often think of it in the spatially bound way that we are accustomed to. The good Sisters of St. Joseph who taught us to want to go to heaven, could only describe it in terms of streets – Gold Street, Silver Street, Slate Street – with a variety of houses, some of them mansions. To say those images “limped” would be an understatement, but they were enough to give young people the desire to go there, and live on Gold Street rather than Slate Street, and have one of those mansions rather than an ordinary small home. As adults, we are more comfortable understanding what we don’t understand, and attempts at conceiving a completely alternate reality have not diminished our desire to go there, even if we have no idea what it will look like or feel like.
The account of Christ’s Ascension in the Acts is meant to give the disciples and us some hint that Christ’s departure from this world, however that actually happened, is not meant to cause us sadness or bewilderment. The two angels not only tell the disciples it’s time to stop staring out into space, but they also assure them that “this Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen Him going into heaven.” They don’t say the return will happen only “at the end of time,” although the Church does profess to believe in a second coming, also looked at in a very spatial way: He will return “on the clouds of heaven,” the same clouds that appear to deliver the Lord to heaven’s doorstep. Perhaps the angels were trying to tell the disciples, don’t worry, He is going to come back, and He is going to come back regularly and often, in the same mysterious and imperceptible way you just saw Him leave. Indeed, the Lord’s promise to be with us always, is fulfilled each and every time we sense the Lord’s presence, not only (and especially) in the Eucharist, but in the quietest moments of our lives, in the neediest moments of our lives, in the troubled moments of our lives. While we cannot fully describe His presence, we know the Lord is truly present to us. The beginning of Luke’s second Book, the Acts of the Apostles, is truly an example of “good news,” for as it describes Jesus leaving this world, it tells us He is coming right back in a mysterious and indescribable way.
In Christ’s Ascension, we find the completion of Christ’s earthly mission and our redemption is accomplished. Jesus bridges the gap between us and heaven, and as the opening prayer (Collect) states: “the Ascension of Christ your Son is our exaltation, and, where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope.” In the Acts account the disciples are reminded “you will be my witnesses” throughout the entire known world. Jesus is leaving the earthly realm and now it’s the disciples turn, without Jesus holding their hands, they are now to be the witnesses. The conclusion to the Gospel of Mark also makes it clear that the disciples are to “go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” In light of the two angel’s message spoken about above, after Jesus leaves this world, Mark tells us that “the disciples went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.”
As the descendants of the scriptural disciples it is now our turn to spread the good news. The second reading from Ephesians makes it clear that we are “to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” How are we going to use the gifts given to us by a loving God? Will we use those gifts to spread the love, peace, and unity that is at the heart of the gospel? A divided, and increasingly troubled world awaits our response.