05Jun 05 June The Ascension of the Lord

Theme

We celebrate today Christ’s ascension to his eternal glory in heaven and express our hope that where he has gone before us, we will one day follow, to the kingdom of our Father. A homily theme: we are separated from Jesus our Lord, only in body but not in spirit. His ascension into heaven is a blessing in disguise for us, not a loss, for he pours out on us from heaven all the energising grace that we need, to be his community in this present world.

Readings

Acts 1:1-11. The Ascension concludes Jesus’ ministry on earth and prepares for the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost.

Eph 1:17-23. God has raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him above every created being. It is a privelege to belong to his body, the church.

Mt 28:16-20. Before he leaves this world, Jesus gives his disciples a magnificent mission. Through his power they are to form a new, world-wide community and he will be with them always.

Bidding Prayers:

– that though absent in body, Jesus may always be with us in spirit, to lead and guide and inspire us.

– that after our life on this earth, one day we too may follow him into the kingdom of our Father.

– that at our parting from this life, we may be reunited with our departed friends in heaven.

– that all the faithful departed whom we have loved in this life may be reunited with the ascended Christ.

Saying Goodbye (Liam Swords)

To speak a foreign language well, one must learn to think in that tongue. Most beginners tend to translate literally from their mother tongue. When an Irish priest I know first started working in French – and I squirm at the thought of what the unfortunate natives were subjected to – he was in a parish in the suburbs of Bordeaux. On one occasion a family in the parish invited him out to dinner. At one point during the meal, Madame offered him a second helping, which he declined. He should have said, Merci, non. J’ai bien mangé. (No thank you. I have eaten well.) Instead, he used an expression which was used in Ireland on such occasions and translated it literally into French. What he said was, Merci, non. Je suis plein (“No thanks. I’m full.”) There was a sudden burst of laughter from the younger members of the family. Later he discovered why. Their priest-guest had just informed them that he was pregnant. “To be full” was a local expression to describe the state of pregnancy.

French is a more precise language than English. Often it has two words, where English has only one. “Goodbye” is a case in point. The French use Au revoir for those everyday temporary separations, while Adieu is reserved strictly for final definitive departures. There is no exact English translation but it means roughly “until we meet in heaven.” Life is a succession of Adieus. The number grows with the passing years. Our memory is peopled with faces that once were dear to us. Some, like our parents, have died. Others have moved away out of our lives never to reappear again, face-to-face. Sometimes their names crop up in conversation and we say, “I wonder what became of so-and-so.” They probably think the same about us occasionally.

Life is a series of little deaths until our own death which for us will be the last great Adieu. Paris must be the capital of “goodbyes.” So many people live there for a while and then move on and settle down elsewhere. With all its charm, it doesn’t seem the kind of city where people strike roots, more a temporary haven for nomads. The modern world is becoming more and more like Paris. It is said that Americans change home on average every four years. And in this, as in so many other facets of life, we are all becoming more and more Americanised. Our “goodbyes” are growing at an ever accelerating rate.

We are, as never before, a pilgrim people. We need faithful friends who travel with us. In today’s gospel, Jesus speaks of his imminent departure, his ascension into heaven. He doesn’t say Adieu but Au revoir. “I am going away and shall return.” We never say goodbye to God: He always goes with us. “Know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.”

It is striking to note how emigrants who leave their families, friends, language and cultures, and settle, often penniless and in a hostile environment, on the other side of the globe, begin by building houses of worship. Such was the case with the Irish in the second half of the nineteenth century in America or Australia. Such is the case today with Muslims from North Africa and elsewhere, building mosques in Europe. God is all they have left to cling to. It is a striking sign that God keeps his promise to be with us always. He will always keep his side of the bargain. It is up to us to keep ours. And when we come to the end of our pilgrimage here and have to make our final farewell, it will be literally Adieu – “until we meet in heaven” with the ascended Christ.

Not Separated (John Walsh)

The Ascension of our Lord and Saviour was an event which must have been recalled with joy and thanksgiving by the Apostles and disciples of Jesus Christ. Reflection on the Ascension of the Lord should make us aware that we live in a world of mystery, with one bright beacon lighting the way ahead, and that oftentimes through a sea of troubles and difficulties. Without this light, which is the glory which surrounds this final event in the earthly history of Jesus, we would not know where we are, what will become of us, what we are to believe, and what the ultimate meaning is of life on earth. But if we have the generosity of heart to risk everything, and accept God’s word, then we will be able to go forward in the knowledge that our Redeemer lives, and is even now at the right hand of the Father, making intercession for each and every soul on earth.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” the New Testament asks (Rom 8:35-39). Indeed nothing can, for in “all things we are conquerors through him who loved us.” We can remain certain that “neither death nor life, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” “He then led them” – the specially chosen witnesses of his post-resurrection appearances – “out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. And it came to pass that while he blessed them, he parted from them and was taken up into heaven” (Lk 24:50f). At that moment every thought and feeling they ever had about him must have come crowding back into their minds.
The cry of their hearts might well have been the plea, “We beseech you, Oh Lord, do not leave us.” This was the first reaction on their part, which surely tended to override every other feeling, as Christ ascended into heaven before their eyes.

But, in a truly wonderful way, their sorrow and anxiety gave way to more lofty and noble emotions. For we are told, “they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the Temple praising God.” They had seen Christ being raised up on high, and their spirits were lifted up with him to a new spiritual plane, making them determined and confident in facing up to the prospect of trials such as Christ himself had endured. Christ had suffered and entered into joy, and so would they, after his example, although to a lesser degree. “Was it not necessary,” Jesus had asked the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “that the Christ should suffer these things, and so enter into his glory?” And so it was that from the moment of Pentecost onwards, the Apostles would no longer hesitate in the face of opposition and persecution. We are told in the Acts of the Apostles (5:41) that they were even “glad to have the honour of suffering humiliation for the sake of the name,” meaning of course Jesus, who by his resurrection had received the name “Lord.” Christ suffered and entered into joy; so did the Apostles in their measure, and so do we.

The Apostles were not allowed to bask in the glow of this newfound consolation. They were commanded to preach to all the nations, to baptise them and lead them to obey the teachings of Christ. At some point or other in the life of each of us there is pain and sorrow and trouble. But we must be tried in order to triumph, humbled in order to be exalted. “If you can have some share in the sufferings of Christ, be glad, because you will enjoy a much greater gladness when his glory is revealed,” St Peter, by way of encouragement, tells us (1 Pet 4:13). Then when the time comes to leave this world, you will also be able to say with St Paul, “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race: I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7), and “all there is left for me now is the crown of justice reserved for me, which the Lord, the just judge will give to me on that day; and not only to me but to all who have longed for his coming.” Lastly Jesus says, “Let not your heart be troubled. I go to prepare a place for you .. and I will come again, and will take you to myself, so that where I am, you also may be” (Jn 14:1+).

Will and Testament (Jack McArdle)

Today’s gospel is the last two paragraphs of St Matthew’s gospel. It makes no direct reference to the ascension, but it gives us some of the final instructions he gave his disciples before he took his leave of them.

I was speaking to somebody the other day who was troubled over making a will. She had grown up in those times when making a will, or receiving what were called “The Last Sacraments” were things that you put off until the last moment. There was something ominous about it. Indeed some of us may know families that were left completely divided because someone hadn’t made a will. In today’s gospel, Jesus has little to say, but he is definite about what he has to say. This is in sharp contrast to the fact that, even at this last minute, some of his disciples still doubted.

The first thing about the disciples is that at least they did what he told them to do. He asked them to meet him on the mountain, and they did that. Like any gathering of human beings, each had his own emotions. Some of them worshipped him, while some of them still doubted. Jesus didn’t seem to have any great problem with that, because he knew that, when the Spirit came, all of those doubts would be ended. It would seem, indeed, that he was in a hurry to take his leave of them, so that the second part of his plan of salvation could get underway.

Notice that Jesus begins his few words by telling them that he, not they, have full authority in heaven and on earth. In an earlier account in Luke’s gospel, he says, “I have given you full authority over all the power of the evil one.” The full authority over everything, however, is something that he reserves to himself. Those who go in his name, do so with his full authority. The authority goes with the mission. That is why he adds, “Go, therefore.”; in other words, because I have the authority, you can go wherever I send you. My power, my promises, and my Spirit will go with you, and will see you through. After telling them what to do, he concludes with the clear and definite promise, “and be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

The mission of the apostles was a simple one. It was to teach others all that he had taught them. Just as he asked his disciples to obey him, they were to ask that others should obey his directions and instructions also. This is like when a doctor puts you on a course of antibiotics. The original sin was a lie. The Spirit is a spirit of truth. One of the rules connected with taking antibiotics is that it is essential to complete the course. Some people begin to feel well after a few days, and they discontinue taking the medicine and, of course, their condition gets worse. The programme of redemption and salvation must continue from generation to generation, until the end of time. With all the changes in the church and in society, the two things that have not changed are Jesus himself, and every word of his message. The Message and the Messenger have never, and never will change. People who are bothered about changes in the church today should be reminded that the only two things that matter have not changed at all.

“You write a new page of the gospel each day, through the things that you do and the words that you say. People will read what you write, whether faithful or true. What is the gospel according to you?” Even sharing with another something you heard here today that you find helpful is to give witness. It must seem obvious to anyone who wishes to see, that the evidence of someone who is trying to live the sort of life that Jesus has taught us to live, must be a powerful witness, indeed.

There seems to be a lot of loneliness and depression around today, or it may be that we are now more conscious or aware of it. There is a great difference between being alone and being lonely. I could be in the midst of a crowd, and be lonely. On the other hand, it is said that I am never less alone than when alone. This applies especially to those who take the final words of today’s gospel seriously, “lam with you always.” Like a young mother, nursing her baby who is sound asleep, communication doesn’t need words. If I am open to the presence and reality of the Lord in my life, then be sure that he will respond to that, and I will live with a conscious awareness of his presence.

Completing Easter (Henry Wansbrough)

The Ascension is an odd feast – which is perhaps one of the reasons why it did not exist as a separate festival in the easy centuries of the Church – since it celebrates, in a way, the lack of Christ rather than his presence. It celebrates a transition, or rather simply the end of a previous era. Full of the presage of the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, it does not yet commemorate the beginning of the era of the Spirit in which the Church now stands. Instead, it commemorates the end of the era of Christ’s physical presence in general, and in particular the period within that era which was a period of preparation – the forty days forming a sort of pre-ordination retreat, like Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness before his ministry, or Israel’s forty years in the desert – in which the apostles were made ready to rely only on the Spirit and the) longer on the visible and audible presence of Christ.

One can look at the feast, therefore, as a sort of thanksgiving for the earthly ministry of Jesus, as he finally departs. But at the same time one must remember the blessing given to doubting Thomas. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’, and reflect on the limitations of that form of existence, subject to restrictions of time and space, contrasting with the mode of presence in the Spirit which enables Christ to be present throughout the Church in all its manifestations. This modality came to be only through his passing out of this world in his physical presence.

The ascension is an odd feast also because it overlaps with Easter itself; it is a sort O{final confirmation of Easter, acting as a closing bracket to the main part of paschaltide. It commemorates the elevation of Christ to the right hand of God, which is already celebrated in the exaltation of Christ at Easter. This double approach to the same mystery is the result of the seeming delay in the raising of Christ to heaven which is suggested by the account of the ascension in Acts. There Christ seems to be being raised to heaven for the first time, although, of course, his exaltation on Easter Sunday must in fact include the grant of power and sovereignty which is meant by ‘taking his seat at the right hand of God’. In any case the fact that he already has this power at the time of the ascension is shown by the gospel reading from Matthew. This puts in Jesus’s mouth the words used in Daniel’s vision of the son of man. One ‘like a son of man’ is presented to God in the heavenly court and receives from him sovereignty over the whole world. Christ’s words in Matthew allude to this, implying that Jesus is this son of man, but making a wider claim still, that he has all authority in heaven as well as on earth. If he already has this position, the final exaltation to God’s right hand has less significance.

A point, however, which has significance for us is that the scene in Acts shows the final removal to heaven of a physical being. It is indeed difficult to envisage how a bodily presence can be in heaven, raising such questions as whether heaven is a place as well as a state (that of joyous company with God). At any rate the risen body is somehow transformed; Christ’s body had not all the limitations of space, for he could pass through walls or doors. Paul in First Corinthians 15 gives a sketch of the change which takes place: from perishable it becomes incorruptible, from weak it becomes powerful, etc. The important thing is that, though there is change, there is also continuity. When we rise again it is as whole persons; in the resurrection I will not be just a disembodied soul, but will be my whole self. It is of this that Christ has reassured us by the event of the ascension. I work out my salvation by my ears, eyes and fingers as well as by my thoughts and intentions, and it as a whole person, including ears, eyes and fingers, that I will enjoy the happiness of heaven.

First Reading: Acts 1:1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:17-23

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”