Yesterday I was remembering that in many parts of the world, Christian communities celebrated the feast of the Ascension of Jesus. The opening lines of the Acts of the Apostles recall that the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples for forty days before being “lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts1:3,9). The Ascension is also recorded in the Gospels of Mark and Luke. Many of us will remember from our school days celebrating the Ascension on a Thursday exactly forty days after Easter. In 1992, the Australian Bishops moved the celebration of the Ascension from Thursday to the 7th and final Sunday of the Easter season, which will be this weekend.
The Ascension celebrates the leaving of the risen Jesus from us on earth and his return to the Father in Heaven. While we cannot fully understand God’s definitive intervention in human history with the Incarnation, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and his subsequent departure from our world, Pope Benedict XVI wrote the following about the feast of the Ascension,
“They looked up to heaven because they looked to Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, raised up on high. We do not know whether at that precise moment they realised that a magnificent, infinite horizon was opening up before their eyes: the ultimate goal of our earthly pilgrimage. Perhaps they only realised this at Pentecost, in light of the Holy Spirit. But for us, at a distance of two thousand years, the meaning of the event is quite clear. Here on earth, we are called to look up to heaven, to turn our minds and hearts to the inexpressible mystery of God. We are called to look towards this divine reality, to which we have been directed from our creation. For there we find life’s ultimate meaning.”
The readings this weekend help deepen our understanding of the Ascension and the mystery of God. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles (1:1-11) tells us that Jesus promised to send the gift of the Holy Spirit. He then commissions the early Christian Community to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. Following this, we are told he “was lifted up while they looked on, and a cloud took him from their sight”. The early believers did not have the privilege we have of air travel nor an understanding of what lies above the clouds and beyond the Milky Way in the beautiful vast universe that we are but a small part. The Ascension as described in the Acts of Apostles does not accord with our modern understanding of space beyond the clouds and our world. For me, I do not imagine Jesus as a perpetually floating cosmic presence travelling light years to some distant heaven, but rather the risen Jesus, who was not bound by the normal laws of physics, and who could appear in different places, was able to return to the Father and the heavenly realms, living in another dimension that we are yet to experience, having fulfilled the task given to him, of embodying and ensuring God’s victory over sin and death, bringing forth new life and a new way of living for all time and for all of creation.
In celebrating and remembering the return of the risen Jesus to his Father, we anticipate the promised gift of the Spirit which we will celebrate next week with Pentecost – 50 days since Easter. Whilst Jesus has returned to the Father, the final words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew are “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20). The risen Jesus is present among us, especially when two or three are gathered in his name, whenever we gather to pray together and celebrate the Eucharist, Baptism or the other sacraments or whenever we reach out to the most marginalised within our communities; these are expressions of our desire to live out Jesus’ invitation to love God and to love our neighbour.
Over these last seven weeks we have been joyfully celebrating Easter – celebrating God’s enduring love, God’s victory over sin and death which brings about enduring reconciliation and new life. But each of us knows from experience that this does not mean we enjoy a life free from fear, doubt, pain and at times suffering. The disciples knew Jesus as well as anybody; they had been some of his closest companions, they had travelled with him, they had seen his miracles, they had listened to his teaching, they had been present at the Last Supper, they had been overcome with fear at the crucifixion and they had experienced the presence of the risen Jesus. But even with all of these experiences, some of them hesitated, some of them had doubts. Despite this, Jesus continues to believe in them, Jesus trusts them, Jesus missions them to go and share what they have been given, to share this with others baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Moreover, Jesus missions them to go to all nations – as all of us are God’s people – all of us are made in the image and likeness of God. In his letter to the Ephesian, St Paul reminds us that “there is one Body, one Spirit” (4:4) and God’s call for each of us holds great hope. As followers and believers in the risen Jesus, we too are trusted, and missioned to share what we have received, even amidst our doubts and fears. We do not do this alone but with each other, energised by the lifegiving Spirit and the promise that Jesus is with us, Jesus who is at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us and constantly renewing, guiding and nurturing the whole of creation.