by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“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
“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them…and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Matthew 28: 16-20
When the authors of the books of the New Testament came to write about experiences they could not fully comprehend they chose to do what poets often do – they used metaphorical language. While the Gospel writers had either a direct experience of Jesus or relied on the testimony of disciples who knew Jesus personally, when they came to dealing with the topic of the divine, the only way they could manage was to use figurative and metaphorical language. God, the Holy Spirit and many facets of the life of Jesus are beyond human comprehension. Consequently, in dealing with topics like these, New Testament writers and scripture scholars and theologians ever since have relied, at least in part, on metaphorical/poetic language.
The ascension of the risen Jesus to “the heavenly Jerusalem” marks the end of the ministry of Jesus and his physical presence on earth and the beginning of the ministry of his disciples in undertaking to teach what they had learned from Jesus and to share their accounts of what they had seen him do for people in need. Early Christians celebrated the bodily return of Jesus to his heavenly community because it carried the promise of a similar destiny for all for whom Jesus had lived and died. It confirmed the authenticity of Jesus’ promise to his disciples that he was “going to prepare a place” for them. That promise extends to all who would be his disciples in the course of history. While Jesus returned physically to God in the body into which he was born when he came into our world, he still remains present to us in the Spirit of his mercy, hope, love and compassion. We believe that Spirit dwells deep within each of us.
In writing about this coming Sunday’s feast of the Ascension, Carol Zalesky, professor of world religions in Smith University, Northampton, Massachusetts, stated: “The feast of the Ascension is overshadowed by Easter, which it fulfills, and Pentecost, which it anticipates. But a case could be made that, when the disciples caught their last sight, then lost sight, of the living God (a moment touchingly portrayed in Christian art as two departing feet just visible beneath the cloud), both Christianity and its rebel child atheism were born. Doubters and believers alike, we are left staring stupidly at the sky.” (Carol Zalesky, Two ascension stories, The Christian Century, May 13, 2015) And Luke’s angels confirmed that the disciples were wasting their time looking in the wrong place and that they would encounter Jesus in getting on with the work he had entrusted them
Luke was the only New Testament writer to portray the departure of Jesus as an event, bordering on the spectacular. (today’s first reading from Acts) The imagery he used of Jesus taking off vertically into the sky, as though he were in a lift/elevator or drawn up by a rocket has mistakenly come to be taken as a literal description. More accurately, it is his way of suggesting that Jesus, in his resurrected body that still bore scars from scourging and holes from nails being driven into his limbs, was being subsumed into a renewed relationship with God.
In his Gospel, Luke referred to the fact that Jesus did physically leave his disciples: “While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24: 52). The tag “ascension” for that departure was supplied by the early Christian community. In Acts, Luke elaborated on his Gospel account by taking imagery from the story of Elijah’s being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2). We might well wonder if Luke was prompted by the depiction of Elijah’s departure to ascribe something similar to Jesus’ departure. There were times in the life of Jesus when people wondered aloud if Jesus and the Baptist were really reincarnations of Elijah. Luke also alludes to the significance in the Old Testament of the number 40. He stated that Jesus dedicated 40 days after his resurrection to preparing his disciples to succeed him. That period was rather like 40 days of retreat or a wilderness experience, away from distractions. Matthew, Mark and Luke (curiously) in their Gospels situate Jesus’ departure on the day of his resurrection.
I suggest that the key to understanding this feast of Ascension is to be found in today’s second reading from Ephesians where Paul wrote: “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” (Ephesians 1: 17-19).
I have italicised “with the eyes of your heart enlightened” because that’s one of Paul’s metaphors for living with faith. While our faith is based in part on both historical events and also on our belief in the resurrection of Jesus (something we cannot prove scientifically), we have both head and heart reasons for explaining why we give our allegiance to Jesus. While some may have little regard for our heart reasons, they cannot easily dismiss them. There is a well-known hymn (I Serve a Risen Saviour), written and published by Presbyterian pastor A. H. Ackley in 1933, which refers to reasons of the heart: “I serve a risen saviour, he’s in the world today. I know that he is living whatever you may say…You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.”
In today’s reading from Ephesians, Paul proceeds to assert that Jesus was raised from the dead by God’s power, placed at God’s right hand, far above every sovereignty, power, domination or ruler in this world or in the hereafter, and appointed as ruler of the world, its people, the church and all creation.
Honestly speaking, I have to say that when I look at our world, it does not seem to me as if “all things heavenly and earthly have been brought together in Christ” (cf Ephesians 1:10). We’re on the edge of a climate-change cataclysm, Sudan is in total upheaval, Pakistan is in uproar, Ukraine and Russia seem to be fighting an interminable war. It does not look as though Christ holds sovereignty and power over everyone and everything. However, the meaning we are called to take out of the doctrine of the ascension is that Jesus Christ is the one to whom we are to turn in order to make meaning of our lives. Paul invites us to rely on the “spirit of wisdom” and to be enlightened by the “eyes of our heart” to do this. That way of approach tells us that that Christ’s rule is not one of earthly might and power. Christ is the one who nurtures and strengthens us with the best of sustenance – mercy, compassion, encouragement, selfless care and love and respect for everyone we encounter. God refuses to interfere with our human freedom. We are Jesus’ ambassadors for addressing conflict and overturning the behaviours that have put our common home on the verge of destruction. That’s what Jesus told all his disciples to roll up their sleeves and get stuck into.