Ascension – a Reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses…to the end of the earth.” Acts 1, 1-11
“Go into the world. Go everywhere and announce God’s good news to one and all.” Mark 16, 15-20

University lecturers in the Faculty of Education have been known to say to their students: “When you go into a classroom, tell students what you are going to teach them, then teach them, and conclude by telling them what you have taught them.” Of course, that includes telling the students where and how to get help if they haven’t grasped what the teacher has tried to teach them. Today’s three readings combine to give a summary of what Jesus came to teach everyone who would be a disciple (students), where and how to get help (from the Holy Spirit and prayerful reflection) and what was involved in being commissioned (sharing with others what has been learned).

The way in which Mark opened his Gospel (“Here begins the Gospel, the good news, of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”) resonates with the way in which Luke introduces the Acts of the Apostles (often called the second volume of Luke’s Gospel): “In my first account (volume), Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up to heaven, having first instructed the apostles he had chosen through the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1, 1-2). Luke proceeds to record a conversation that took place between Jesus and his apostles immediately before he disappeared permanently from their sight: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down on you; then you are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, yes, even to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1, 8). To put it bluntly, Jesus was telling the apostles to roll up their sleeves and prepare to go out and share what he had taught them. Moreover, we hear the very same message in today’s gospel-reading from Mark: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation” (Mark 16, 15). The implication of the start of both Acts and Mark’s Gospel is that what Jesus said and taught was but the beginning of his good news to the world and that it was to be continued by all his followers, with the help of the Holy Spirit, until there was nobody left to hear that good news. The indicator that Luke gives to include all of us in the proclamation of Jesus’ good news is the fact that he addresses the second volume of his Gospel to Theophilus, a Greek name which literally means friend or lover of God. Surely that is a generic name for all of us who all claim to be friends and lovers of God.

The question which Luke attributes to all the apostles in their final exchange with Jesus, was probably put by one of them, on behalf of his companions. The very fact that they could ask Jesus: “Lord, are you going to restore the rule to Israel now?”, is a clear indication that those eleven apostles were a class of slow learners. They had not understood what Jesus had tried to teach them. Clearly, too, his telling them that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came down on them just didn’t register with them. Indeed, they probably could not even imagine who the Holy Spirit might be. But their question to Jesus would suggest that they were still expecting a political bonanza or a visit from the tooth fairy. Yet, Jesus still took the risk of trusting that God’s Spirit would breathe sense into them. So, he commissioned them to work at bringing his good news to the world, at continuing to contribute to his Gospel, but making sure to rely on the Holy Spirit.

I have no doubt that Luke and the other Gospel writers wanted to stress just how slow the apostles were in coming to understand who Jesus was and what he had tried to teach them. They also knew that the apostles did not know who the Holy Spirit was and how God’s Spirit works in the world. But are you and I any different from those first apostles? Have we yet grasped who the Risen Christ is and what our role is in living and sharing his message? And what role do we give to God’s Spirit in our day-to-day lives? How often, in the space of a week, do I reflect on the action of God’s Spirit in my life, in the world around me, and in the people I encounter? Or do I do that only when I make time to sit down to write a reflection like this? I can admit, too, that there have been times in my life when I have hoped that God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit would come with a spectacular solution to my challenges. I have even hoped that God would intervene and solve my problems for me. But isn’t it true that God has given us the resources we need to meet the problems and challenges that come our way, and that Jesus has assured us that the Holy Spirit is within and around us to guide us in the decisions we make? And yet, all too often, we delude ourselves into thinking that it all depends on us. We also have to remember that the blessings we have are for our community and our world, not just for ourselves.
There is an African parable about two villages separated by a river.  In each village, there lived a woodworker who knew how to make chairs.  Both knew the secret of making strong, durable and beautiful chairs. But the chair-maker in the first village was afraid to teach others because he thought they would not make the chairs correctly — and worse, if they did, they could cut into his business.  So, he jealously guarded his work.  He became suspicious of anyone with wood, worried that they may have discovered his secret.  He would ridicule them and warn them not to try and make a chair themselves.  So, he made all the chairs in the village, but no one wanted to go near him.  The young men of the village interested in woodworking left the village rather than ask him to teach them. The chair-maker eventually died alone — and his secret with him.
But the chair-maker in the second village did not keep his knowledge to himself.  He helped anyone who asked what wood to use, how to plane and cut the pieces, how to mix the glue to assemble the pieces.  Over the years, many of the young men of the village served as his apprentices.  Sometimes one of them would discover a way to improve the chair.  The master chair-maker would encourage the apprentice to show what he discovered to others.  As a result, the chairs in the village kept getting better and better.  People from other villages would come and buy their excellent chairs — and soon the tables and benches he and his apprentices began to make. 
When people praised the master chair-maker’s work, he would laugh and say, “I did not build these chairs alone.  These young men have improved my chairs.  I am getting old, but these young men will continue building better and better chairs.  I have given my skills and knowledge to them and they have given their love and friendship to me.  Together we have done far more than if I had worked alone.” (Adapted from Once Upon a Time in Africa: Stories of Wisdom and Joy, compiled by Joseph G. Healey. I am indebted to the writer, Jay Cormier for this story.)
We have all been instructed in how to live and witness to the Gospel. We also know that some who see our efforts to do that will ignore or ridicule us. Are we still up to it?