Acts 1:1-11; Eph 4: 1-13; Mk 16:15-20
Men of Galilee ‘Why are you standing there looking at the sky? I find this question very counter intuitive. If they have seen Jesus going into heaven and they know he is to return from the heavens, then why not continue looking up at the heavens until he returns? Why should they do anything other than stare at the heavens?
The very counter-intuitiveness of this should clue us into something else happening here. Usually the Ascension has always been seen or rather felt as a disappearance. The cloud took Jesus from their sight. He ascended to the Father. We remain castaways on the earth. It was great when the Lord was with us in the flesh but today He takes off for a better place and leaves us with the all the loose ends. If we examine our deepest assumptions we shall find lurking this sense of abandonment. Dorothy Day coined a beautiful and apt phrase for this – ‘the long loneliness.’ It haunts our imagination. This disappearance. So the gap between Jesus’ disappearance and His reappearance at the so called Second Coming – this gap of time is filled with discouragement and darkness even, surprisingly so, for Christians who should be hopeful.
We should look closely at the accounts of what happened. There are incongruities strewn like minefields meant to blow up our usual ways of understanding. Remember the disciples on the way to Emmaus – Jesus disappears from their sight at the breaking of the bread. What is surprising and even shocking is they are not one bit saddened. They who but a few hours before were desperate, depressed and fleeing Jerusalem. Even though they see Jesus no more, they are energized, they return to Jerusalem, the very place they were running away from. What’s wrong with this picture then? This is what should snag us and make us ask the questions.
Or today’s readings- lets us not breeze past them just because we think we understand the English in which they are proclaimed. In the second reading for instance, we hear, ‘the One who descended is the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things’ He ascended above the heavens, but He also fills all things – not just in heaven but on earth. I call this minefield number one. He is up and yet he is down? Or take the Gospel. “so then the Lord Jesus was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God. So far so good. But they went forth and preached everywhere while the Lord worked with them. The Lord is in the highest heavens and yet the Lord worked with them? He is not there and yet he is there? Again something does not add up. And this tells us something.
The disappearance is not the disappearance we think it is. It is not a disappearance but a new kind of presence. This is what the Ascension is about. A new kind of presence. Before Jesus was limited by the body to space and time. Now no time, no age, no place, no space is excluded from the presence of the Lord. He fills all things as the second reading tells us even the darkest corners of time and space.
What does this mean for us? We are in the habit of envying those who lived in the time of the Lord. We envy their direct contact with the Lord, they saw Him in the flesh, encountered His goodness. We wish we were there. Then faith would be simpler for us. We feel like second class citizens in the kingdom of heaven. The Ascension as a new kind of presence tells another story. We have the same access to Jesus as those in first century Palestine. They saw Him in the flesh but they still had to have faith in Him. They were not exempt from this. We encounter Him in just the same fashion in His new body – in the Word, in Sacraments, in our brothers and sisters in the faith, in the circumstances on everyday life. We cannot complain that we are abandoned and are second class citizens any more. We must make the leap of faith just as they did then. There is no shortcut for anyone.
How hopeful this must make us then. Our unconverted feelings may tell one story but the facts are otherwise. We always have access to the Lord. Behold I stand at the door at knock. I think our saints got this. This is why we find St Damian of Molokai venturing where no one wanted to go – into the despair of the leper colony, eventually dying as a leper himself. Or Mother Teresa who searched for Christ in the misery of the slums. They tell us by their faith and hope and love that the light is there shining in the darkness and the darkness has not, nor can it ever overcome the light. Christ has ascended to the Father not to abandon us but to fill all things with His Risen Presence.