“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1, 1.11
“The Ascension of the Lord is not the marking of a departure, but the celebration of a presence.” That statement by writer, Jay Cormier captures in a nutshell what the Ascension is all about. Yet, we can easily be distracted from this central message if we get drawn into sympathising with the disciples who were paralysed by self-pity and grief. To do that is to miss the whole point. The angel’s message to the disciples is for us, too.
Today’s story from Acts describes how the angel, who appeared to the disciples after Jesus had disappeared from their sight, summed up the situation perfectly and confronted them: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing around, dawdling? Get going, for you have a job to do. Your best friend, who helped you to find real meaning in your lives, has just given you a mission to accomplish. Moreover, he has empowered you to continue his mission of witnessing to the wonderful works of God. So, get a move on!” Luke’s angel is a little more polite than that. But that was the substance of the angel’s message. Yet the disciples took time to digest that message.
Ascension is a difficult celebration in the Church’s calendar because of the way in which Luke talks about Jesus being “taken up to heaven” as though it was literally a physical transfer from one place to another. However, if we were to accept that literally, we would be subscribing to the simplistic cosmology of the ancient Israelites, who believed in a three-tiered universe, with the dead down below in the bottom tier, the divine powers up above in the heavens, and the living between them in the middle tier. Indeed, some biblical poetry (So think “metaphor”!) pictures the might of the universe as something/somebody beyond our knowing, as if it were a throne room in the sky. For Matthew, “heaven” is another word for God. But we have to blame the Medieval mystics for giving us the notion that heaven is a place “up there somewhere” to where we will go after death and see God face to face. Earlier, the Greek philosopher Plato introduced the idea that humans were made up of two parts – a body and soul fused together, and that after death the soul would enjoy a place called heaven. Relics of these ancient cosmologies still survive in the creed we recite on Sundays, which situates the risen Christ “at the right hand of the Father”. And believers and non-believers alike often speak as if God is “up there somewhere”.
Like all great metaphors, the picture is an engaging one: a deity, sitting on a throne, surrounded by supernatural powers, with Jesus, God’s Prime Minister making sure everything and everybody are in their right place, and justice and peace are flourishing. Despite all this imagery, as early as the 5th century, no less a person than Pope St Leo the Great stated that “Christ has ascended into the sacraments”. Today we say that Christ is alive and active in the Christian community, in all of us who live and proclaim the Gospel entrusted to us. That very message is encapsulated in the final few lines of today’s second reading from Ephesians (cf Ephesians 1, 22-23).
I think the real clue to understanding the Ascension is to be found in the three verses of Acts that follow on from today’s first reading. They tell of how the disciples, after Jesus had been taken from their sight, returned to the upper room in Jerusalem and joined together in prayer. That is Luke’s way of telling us that they were bewildered, fearful, and just didn’t know what to do next. They were a leaderless, shattered community. So they went into hiding to give themselves time to decide what to do, hoping that somehow the promise Jesus had made – “you are going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1, 5) – would come true. They found themselves in an in-between time, caught between loss and promise. And that’s an experience we have all had, and we know how uncomfortable and disconcerting it can be. Most of us, for example, have felt the pain of losing a close family member through accident or terminal illness. It’s as though we are in a vacuum, bewildered, hurting, yet trying to hold ourselves together as we strive to get our life back on track.
Others know the in-between time of going away to boarding school or leaving home to take on full-time employment or study in the big city. Securities they have taken for granted have evaporated and the pall of homesickness envelops them.
Still others find themselves no longer needed in their place of work. They are casualties of an economic downturn. They are too old to retrain for something new and too young to retire. They fear they may not get another job. And then there are those whose marriage falls apart, and those who find themselves wondering if they will ever recover from a debilitating physical or mental illness. All these people know what it is to struggle through in-between times.
Implicit in today’s reading from Acts is a recipe for how to pull through: pray, find support from close friends, accept that one can survive without living in luxury, and don’t lose hope. That’s what the disciples did. And living like that is not beyond us either. The essence of it is to live with authenticity and integrity.
Maybe, we can all learn something from the German tennis star, Boris Becker. At the age of seventeen, he had already won Wimbledon. Despite his youth, he had come realise that the German people were beginning to idolise him. In reflecting on that, he made this extraordinary statement: “The German people wanted me to live for them…When I entered my home town people stood and gazed at me as if they were expecting blessings from the Pope. When I looked into the eyes of my fans at the Davis Cup matches last December, I thought I was looking at monsters. Their eyes had no life in them. When I saw this kind of blind, emotional devotion, I could understand what happened to us a long time ago at Nuremberg” (Heather MacLachlan, The Telegraph, London, Nov 26, 2001). Boris Becker wanted to be authentically himself.
The readings for Ascension are a challenge to us to be authentic witnesses to the values we have learned as disciples of Jesus. They are a call to us to involve ourselves in the life of the Christian community to which we claim to belong. Am I able to hear and respond?