HE WAS LIFTED UP, AND A CLOUD TOOK HIM FROM THEIR SIGHT
Sunday, May 8, 2016
Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord
46 And he said to them, “Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day47and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.48You are witnesses of these things.49And [behold] I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
50 Then he led them [out] as far as Bethany, raised his hands, and blessed them.51As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven.52They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy,53and they were continually in the temple praising God.
Other readings: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 7:2-9; Hebrews 9:24-28; Hebrews 10:19-23
We, who live in the 21st Century, may feel uncomfortable when reading passages from the Scripture such as the two texts we have today narrating the Ascension of the Lord to heaven. After Einstein and relativity, Quantum Physics and the rest of the scientific theories that have shaped our vision of the universe, how can we accept the idea of Jesus living “up there,” in the heights of heaven, then “coming down” to share our human environment and “ascending back” to his Father? The truth is, no one with a basic education can share such a naïve, pre-scientific conception of reality. Nevertheless, we can enter the mentality of the people of old and see that we, too, speak about “ascending” to a “higher post,” or in our social status, of having “lofty ideals” and even “looking down” on someone we consider inferior. Behind the spatial image, there is the concept of quality or status. And those ideas are common to all of us in any epoch. That is why the hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 is a model of ancient biblical cosmology and, even so, can be perfectly understood by modern readers.
The Ascension, mentioned also by Mark (16:19-20) but described with detail only by Luke, is the last step in the divine design of salvation performed by Jesus Christ. What we are celebrating today is, once again, a mosaic with many dimensions. The Ascension, Jesus’ return to the Father, is, together with the Resurrection and the Incarnation, the expression of a process in which an essential issue of our Christian vison of human life is revealed: we are not alone. The one God in whom Israel believed is not the god of philosophers, a being separated from the world and human history, indifferent to our fate, but the God who comes close to us, who is essentially communicative (we will see that in the feast of the Holy Trinity), who “heard the moaning” of the Hebrews (Exodus 2:23-24), took pity of them and continued with them in a history that led to the events Jesus’ disciples transmitted to us. This “history of salvation” had its apex in Jesus, God’s only Son, who literally shared our human nature and history, and announced the Good News of the Kingdom, suffered, died and was raised from the dead, and in whose name his followers preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
That is the kernel of our faith. Mystery is hard to explain, and that is why Luke does not relate details about where the Ascension took place (in Bethany [Luke 24:50] or in mount Olivet [Acts 1:12]). Neither does John locate the gift of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, but in Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples: “Receive the holy Spirit” (20:22). It is only from this perspective of “essentials” that we can understand the mystery of our faith in Jesus the Christ and see that there is no contradiction in the content (the same now and in the times of the Apostles). Once again, the kernel of our faith is found in the expression of our common creed.
A last detail in our Lectio. Notice that the disciples do not yet understand “in full” Jesus’ message about the Kingdom. They still expect the coming of the kingdom of God in worldly terms (Acts 1:6-8). No doubt, the Spirit will have a long and hard task to “guide them to the whole truth” (John 16:12-15).
Today’s celebration immediately brings to our minds the number of times Jesus warned the disciples about his departure. First, he separated from them after being arrested in the Garden to be judged, crucified and buried; then later, in his final return to the Father. From a purely human viewpoint, there were reasons to feel sad, but Jesus’ words were filled with encouragement: “your grief will become joy … I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:22). The entire 16th chapter of John’s Gospel is a long section of comforting words.
Although we know “the end of the story,” the feelings of solitude come to Christians in every moment of crisis, either because we sin, or because we cannot understand certain events in our personal lives or in the course of history. Just like the disciples, we wonder when the Kingdom will come and we yield to the temptation of feeling abandoned or dismayed. From Jesus’ last and long dialogue with the disciples, let me suggest this simple verse for our Meditatio on the Ascension: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18), and this from his farewell in Matthew 28:20, ”I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Let us pray for those who feel downhearted in their following of Christ, as if the Lord were totally absent from their lives: that they may experience again the joyful presence of the Lord, overcome their pessimism, and renew their commitment to the Gospel.
Pray for those who suffer abandonment in the most literal sense of the word, -- refugees, terminally ill patients, the elderly and children living in devastated areas, (you can add a long list): that in their suffering they may experience the helping hand of others, leave their distress behind them, and recover hope.
I know that in these past weeks I have insisted excessively on “reading” biblical texts, as if Contemplatio were a mere extension of Meditatio (something it certainly is not!). However, I will recommend reading again any passage from chapters 14 to 16 in John’s Gospel. In these times of distress, these passages can be a good source of hope, not only for us but for those who need a word of comfort.
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón,Roman Catholic priest,Archdiocese of Madrid, Spain