Ascension 2024 – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

The Lord Jesus was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God. But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.” Mark 16: 15-20
“…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1: 1-11

The four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles together give us an insight into the heavy weather the Apostles made of the commission Jesus had given them to take his message to the world. The impression we are given of them is not a particularly flattering one. In fact, the New Testament biographers of these close followers of Jesus, of these men whom Jesus had personally selected, levelled damning criticism at them for their slow wits and their empty-headedness. We, together with the four Evangelists, can all find reasons to be critical of the Apostles and to magnify their inadequacies. We can also muster some sympathy for them as they tried to face a future which they imagined could be truly daunting. But we might also wonder if they were too dull to appreciate just how difficult a life spent following their master might be. I find myself sometimes wondering if Jesus was so exasperated by their inability to grasp what he was inviting them to undertake that he decided that the best way to give them a reality-check might be to give them time and space to stew in their own juice or, to mix the metaphors, to pressure them to take time to ponder the depth of their stupidity and to sit in their own self-inflicted confusion about what he had invited them to undertake. That might partly explain the length of time they spent in the “Upper Room” waiting for the Holy Spirit to rescue them.
The very last request that the Apostles put to Jesus on the day he left them to return to his Father was for details of the day on which they would be appointed to positions of fame and glory: “Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1: 6) That was a far cry from the kingdom of God he had invited them to proclaim to a world in need. Perhaps their thinking in the direction of Israel’s being rejuvenated and restored as a political power and their seeing themselves as beneficiaries was triggered by the urging Jesus gave them to remain in Jerusalem in anticipation of receiving “what the Father had promised”. (Acts 1: 4) The infusion of God’s Spirit filling them with inspiration and energising them to proclaim the kingdom of God was not something high on their list of expectations.
To their credit, they finally grasped what Jesus had patiently and perseveringly tried to teach them, and they translated into missionary action what they had finally come to learn. Such was the influence of God’s Spirit on them as a group.
In putting our focus on those first followers of Jesus and their inability to grasp what he was asking of them, we can be drawn into being mere observers of the events linked to his Ascension and forgetting that his invitation to the Apostles to be witnesses to him and his message to the world is also an invitation to us to be his witnesses to the world of 2024. God’s Spirit is alive and active in the lives of everyone we encounter and in the ordinary events of every day. In order to recognise and respond to God’s Spirit, we might do well to stop and ponder how we can be inclined to turn a deaf ear or a blind eye to the promptings of God’s Spirit. We, too, might do well to take time to ponder our own self-inflicted confusion and our reluctance to witness to the Gospel of Jesus through reaching out to our world with compassion, encouragement, tolerance and forgiveness. The Ascension signals the passing of the baton of mission and ministry from Jesus to his Apostles and from them to us.
A reflection attributed to St Teresa of Avila fittingly captures for us what it means here and now to accept the invitation of Jesus to be his witnesses to everyone we encounter:

Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,

There is a traditional Quaker story that tells of a woman who found her way into a Quaker congregation gathered in prayer. After a few minutes sitting beside the man in the seat next to her, she whispered: “When does the service begin?” He quietly replied: “As soon as the meeting is over!”
Ascension announces: Let the service begin. There’s nothing to be achieved by simply standing dumbfounded, looking up at the sky!