20th May. The Ascension of the Lord
Acts 1:1-11. Luke colourfully describes Jesus ascent to heaven, after promising to send the Holy Spirit to guide his followers.
Eph 1:17-23. Paul’s view of the ascension is that God not only raised Jesus above all earthly powers, but made him head of the Church, and Lord of creation.
Mk 16:15-20. Before returning from this earth to heaven, Jesus Christ sends his apostles to preach the Gospel to the whole world.
Theme: We celebrate Christ’s ascension to his eternal glory. Today we express our hope that where he has gone, we will one day follow, to live forever in the kingdom of our Father.
Whenever I ask someone where home is, the usual answer is the place where he or she was first nurtured and loved. No matter how many homes you and I have lived in, home is always that place where those particular people are. Be they parents, grandparents or friends, they have etched a memory in our hearts.
As I write this I am preparing to go home to New Zealand. I imagine the sort of homecoming that awaits me too. Without fail, Mum will be at the airport. As we drive home it will be good to see the familiar places where I spent the first twenty years of my life.
As we reflect on today’s Gospel, we might wonder about Jesus’ homecoming. For thirty-three years he has been away from home, an itinerant, living rough – and dying even more roughly. His Ascension reminds us that deeply etched in our hearts there is still another place we can claim to call our home. We don’t remember it, but it was where we were firstly created, loved and nurtured. Jesus, our oldest brother gets home first. He gives us a glimpse of the beauty our future home and the more wonderful thing is that he is still with us to teach us how to get there.
Breaking the Barrier
The curtain closes at the end of the show! The audience starts to applaud. Backstage, the actors hurry into a self-conscious line. Somebody shouts “Open the curtain!” Another advises, “No, wait, hold on a minute.” A flustered performer rushes from the dressing-room to a chorus of whispered exhortation and slips into place, breathless but composed. The curtain twitches, sweeps quickly back, the applause rises to a crescendo. The actors bow, the grand finale. A waving of hands, the curtain closes again, the show is over!
Most of us think of Our Lord’s Ascension as a finale to the greatest show on earth. Our Lord had spoken his lines, performed his wonders, played the principal role in the tragic drama of Crucifixion. He had made his audience gasp with the startling brightness of his Resurrection and now with his Ascension, he was taking his final bow, except that, instead of a curtain, it was a cloud that swept across and hid him from human sight! (Acts 1:9).
To think of Our Lord’s Ascension as a finale is to miss the point altogether! Our Lord did not go back to heaven, in the same way that an actor goes back to the dressing-room, leaving the rest of us to make our way home. There is a real sense in which we, you and I, ascended to heaven with Our Lord and it is this mass-ascension that we might think about now.
When Our Lord ascended to heaven, he took his human nature with him. This means that a human nature like ours has broken the barrier between earth and heaven. “In Jesus, the Son of God,” says St Paul, “we have the supreme high priest who has gone through to the highest heaven” (Heb 4:14). But it’s not just a human nature like ours. It’s a human nature representative of ours. All human beings ascended with Christ, in promise at least. He died for us, rose for us, ascended for us, so that we could ascend with him. In his Ascension, he blazed a trail that we can follow – provided we ready ourselves for “take off,” his going up is a guarantee that we will go up too. We are familiar with guarantees that go with cars, shoes or whatever. They last six months, or a year! The guarantee going with Christ’s Ascension lasts for all eternity: “I am going now to prepare a place for you” (Jn 14:2). St Paul is so sure of that guarantee that he does not hesitate to describe Christian people as having access in the here and no to the dwelling place of God: “This is the anchor our souls have, reaching right through inside the curtain where Jesus has entered as a forerunner on our behalf” (Heb 6:20).
If you stood in a queue outside the cinema, if you had your seat booked and if you had a friend standing inside the door with the tickets, you’d be pretty sure of getting in. The Christ of the Ascension has booked a place in heaven for us. He paid for our seat with his blood! He sits at the right hand of the Father waiting for us – no – praying for us to come in! (Heb 7-25; 9:24)
There is a passage in the book of Job that, predictably enough, is a rather desolate reflection on the human condition: “A human being, born of woman, whose life is short but full of trouble. Like a flower, such a one blossoms and withers, fleeting as a shadow, transient” (Jb 14:1, 2). “His palm trees will wither before their time and his branches never again be green” (Jb 15:3 1). Some time ago I was asked to say a prayer for a young woman who was suffering from an incurable disease. Her fingers had turned black. Then they began to decay. All the doctors could do at the time was to amputate so as to keep one step ahead for as long as possible. This progressive and consuming disease, even if it’s not a general experience, is still a dark and powerful symbol of the destructiveness of time and our own vulnerability
All through our lives we’re trying to keep one step ahead – making the most of it, yes, not consciously fleeing in fear, yet knowing in our hearts that inevitably our heels will be clipped and the chase will come to an end. Yet the end of the chase, unwelcome or hateful though it be, should be different for believers. As Christians, we don’t die direction-less. We die in the knowledge of where Christ has gone. He told us in John (Jn 12:32) that when he was lifted up from the earth, he would draw all people to himself. He began the process on the cross and completes it in the Ascension. The cross and the Ascension are part of one great, sweeping, saving movement, part of the same escalator. The progression is heavenward all the time. There will always be darkness in life and the inevitability of death. But we, children of the light, can look up through the darkness, to where our ascended Christ has “set the frail substance of our human nature on the right hand of the Father.”- He has set there a goal we can aim at. And we know it’s a goal we can reach. Our hearts are full of hope that, with the help of the Lord who has gone before us and in the words of the opening prayer of the Mass, “we may follow him into the new creation.”
Don’t Search the Sky
The word “process” has been much in vogue. In Ireland we associate the word in particular with the phrase, “the peace process.” The word “process” in that connection suggests that the attainment of a lasting peace will only happen in stages, and that one stage needs to finish before another stage can begin. A process that has many stages calls for patience, for perseverance and for a hopeful stance. People who like instant success, who want it all to happen now, will be impatient with talk of a process. Yet, so much of life is the experience of process, of moving from one stage in a project onto another. Our own individual lives can be understood as a process. As we go through life we find ourselves moving through a series of stages or seasons. The transition from one stage to another always involves some element of letting go and moving on. Part of the challenge of life is to address and deal with the various moments of letting go and moving on that the process of living entails.
The life of Jesus was a unique life because he was a unique person, being, as he was, God in human form. Yet, his life, like every human life, was a process that involved a succession of stages. His hidden years in Nazareth might be understood as one stage in his life, his public ministry as another stage. His baptism was the transition moment between these two stages. His death on the cross was another transition moment between his public ministry and the short period during which he appeared in bodily form in his glorified state to his disciples. The struggle that his disciples had to let him go at that moment is captured well by St. John in his scene, outside the empty tomb, when the risen Lord meets with Mary Magdalene and has to tell her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”
Yet the moving on of Jesus in his ascension did not entail his complete absence from his disciples. Today’s gospel reading ends, “the Lord Jesus was taken up into heaven.” Yet, the next sentence reads, “the Lord was working with the disciples and confirming their preaching by the signs that accompanied it.” The Lord was taken up, he was taken away, and yet he was working with them. The Lord did not distance himself from the church, but is even closer to his church, albeit invisibly. How clearly St. Paul understood this as a result of his meeting with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. After persecuting the church with grim zeal, he met the risen Lord who asked him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” In persecuting the church, Saul came to realize that he was persecuting the Lord because, as today’s gospel says, the Lord was working with those who worked for him. Today’s feast then is more about presence than about absence. We celebrate the Lord’s presence in the church. His Spirit has been poured into our hearts and, together, we are his body. As the second reading reminds us today, the Lord ascended in order to give gifts to his followers, “for building up the body of Christ.” Today’s feast directs our gaze to the body of Christ here on earth in and through which Christ is ever-present.
First Reading: Acts of the Apostles 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: Letter to the 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: Mark 16:15-20
And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.
Second Reading. ad libitum: Letter to the Galatians 5:16-25
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
Gospel ad libitum: John 15:26-27; 16:12-15
“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.