by Br Julian McDonald cfc
This is a reflection for the Ascension. I am having difficulty this week because some countries/dioceses celebrated Ascension on Thursday and some on Sunday. The readings I have used are: Acts 1, 1-11, Ephesians 4, 1-13 and Mark 16, 15-20.
He said to them, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature…So they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.” Mark 16, 15-20
A friend of mine who attended an Anglican boarding school told me a story of the school’s history master, who was to be seen smoking his pipe and looking up at the sky every morning as the students filed into the chapel for prayers. While the students noted and talked about this daily occurrence, nobody dared ask the master for an explanation of this daily routine. They simply concluded that the man was just a little eccentric. That is until my friend, nearing the end of his final year, found the courage to ask. “Young man”, the master replied, “I believe that all Christians should spend some time every day actively looking for the return of Jesus.”
Today is the Church’s commemoration of Jesus’ return to God, and the first reading from Acts offers a mildly humorous story of what followed upon Jesus’ final words to his disciples – a speech that reminds me of the kind of address now delivered at a university or school graduation. But more of that a little later.
We are told that, when Jesus’ address to his disciples had finished, he was lifted up into a cloud and taken away. Then two figures in white robes – usually referred to as angels – appeared and broke the spell that had apparently gripped the gathering. The two angels behaved like party poopers, asking the disciples why they were staring senselessly into the sky: “Keep moving! There’s no point standing around opened-mouthed and useless. The show’s over, so get on with the job you’ve been given.” As comical as this retelling may seem, the description of Jesus’ ascension poses a question for all of his followers: “Where do we really think Jesus is now?”
But first back to that “graduation” address, for it was Ascension day that marked the “graduation” of the disciples and the start of their ministry rather than the end of Jesus’ ministry. In today’s gospel reading, Mark gives what strikes me as the highlights of Jesus’ address to the new “graduates”. To disciples of 2018, the message would be much the same, but the language a little different. I suggest that Jesus would be saying to us something like this: “Get out there and listen to people, first with your ears and minds, and then respond freely and generously with your hearts. You won’t get very far these days trying to push your beliefs and opinions on people. Remember that I taught in parables, and that I observed those to whom I spoke, noting where their hearts were troubled or otherwise focussed, and then I used what I sensed to talk about God’s love in ways that immediately touched their hearts. Remember, too, that good news is not good news unless it is delivered in a way that touches people where they live. Whatever your expertise or profession, you are all agents of healing – Christians who identify with my spirit as it has been expressed in the lives of people like Mary MacKillop, Ignatius of Loyola, Nano Nagle and Edmund Rice. So be generous with your talents. I wish you all my peace, and not so much in the way of success in the future as I wish that you will all continue to grow in heart, mind and spirit, walking beside your sisters and brothers, encouraging and affirming them, and helping them to grow into their best selves.” The Ascension of Jesus marks the point at which Jesus took the calculated risk of entrusting his mission to those closest to him, judging that they would measure up to the task. And they, in turn, have entrusted that mission through the generations to us.
But Jesus’ ascension still leaves us with that question: “Where do we think he is now?” When we were young, we were taught to pray, sometimes with our eyes closed and at others, with our gaze lifted upwards. Both were appropriate postures to adopt. In fact, the psalms contain many references to “lifting our eyes to the Lord”. And during the celebration of the Eucharist, the priest invites us to lift up our hearts. And we reply with: “We lift them up to the Lord”. Moreover, in John’s gospel we read that Jesus “looked up to heaven and prayed”. Despite these expressions, I hope we actually realise that Jesus is not literally located somewhere up in the sky. And even if we know this, I suggest that, if we sometimes look up when we pray, it’s because we associate the physical act of looking up with the understanding that the mystery of the divine is far beyond our comprehension. Looking up into the unknown is probably the best symbol we can find of how to relate to the mystery we call God. And let’s not forget that symbols not only point to some deeper reality, but also help us to participate in the reality to which they point.
It is important to me, then, that I understand something of the symbolic significance of the story of Jesus’ ascension. If all it means to me is that Jesus was somehow lifted up into the sky, then I might conclude that he’s up there sitting peacefully in the stratosphere or bouncing around in the Milky Way. And that makes no sense at all. However, if I can grasp the sign and symbol of this ascension story, I can come to appreciate that the humanity that Jesus shares with us has been taken up with him to the heart of God. And I have to keep reminding myself of what that human condition actually looks like. It’s the degradation of people fleeing their war-torn countries on foot or in leaking boats; it’s the broken-heartedness of parents who have lost a child through cancer or the violence of a school shooting; it’s the confusion, frustration, anger and grief of families whose sons, daughters, sisters and brothers have been blown away by suicide bombers; it’s the shame felt by families when one of their number goes to prison; it’s the suffering of Rohinga people forced to flee ethnic cleansing. All of the tragedy, sorrow and brokenness of the human condition has been “taken up” to God by the one who came among us and took on all the limitations of our humanity, except our sinfulness. But Jesus has also taken up the fidelity, generosity, compassion, decency and creativity of ordinary people, living run-of-the-mill lives. All of these have found room in God’s abiding love for humanity.
That’s why the angels in the story directed the disciples’ attention from being fixed on that one cloud. The impact of Jesus’ ascension is not limited to one time and place. It is significant for all times and places. If we’re looking for Jesus, there’s nothing wrong with doing what the history master did, provided we don’t stop at that. We can get a glimpse of the mystery of God and God’s love in every aspect of the created universe, in every expression of the human condition. We can see God’s love reflected in the volunteers working in soup-kitchens and in in women and men who benefit from the generosity of those volunteers. We can see it reflected in the gratitude on the faces of the beggars on our streets, and in the workers who stack shelves in supermarkets; in those who share their stories over lunch with friends in schools and work places. We can glimpse the mystery of God’s love for us in all the circumstances of life, because Jesus took on our human condition, lived it fully, and gave it a place with God.