The Ascension of the Lord
This feast recalls the moment when Jesus’ personal ministry on earth comes to an end and he returns to God his Father. In that sense, there is an element of farewell about this feast. We are all familiar with the experience of farewell. We say many goodbyes in the course of our lives. We say goodbye to primary school days as we move to secondary school; we say goodbye to secondary school days as we move to college or directly into some form of work. We say goodbye to parents as we leave home for the first time. Parents say goodbye to their children as they begin to make their own way. Then there is the final and most painful goodbye as our loved ones move on from this earthly life. We sense that we need to keep saying farewell if we are to grow as human beings.
We don’t like to be moving on from those we love and care about, and, so there is element of sadness about most farewells. Yet, according to the gospel reading, that was not the case with the ascension of Jesus. We are told that as Jesus withdrew from his disciples and was carried up to heaven, ‘they worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy, and they were continually in the Temple praising God’. Those closest to Jesus responded to his ascension with worship, joy and praise. His ascension was not like his death. His crucifixion left his disciples despondent and fearful. It is said of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus that their faces were downcast as they walked along. According to the gospel of John, the disciples were so afraid after the death of Jesus that they locked themselves into a room. After Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples, and their fear was transformed to courage, their sadness to joy, their despondency to hope. The disciples came to realize that Jesus was alive with a new and more powerful life. He briefly appeared to them in bodily form to reveal his new life to them and assure them that he would be with them until the end of time. When this short period of his appearances as risen Lord ceased, his disciples continued to live in the light of Easter. They knew that the Lord would always be with them.
Although there is an element of farewell about this feast, it is much more a feast of the Lord’s presence. In the gospel reading, the risen Lord indicates the primary way he will be present to his disciples into the future, ‘Stay in the city, then, until you are clothed with power from on high’. At the very beginning of Luke’s gospel, balancing our gospel reading, which is at the very end of Luke’s gospel, the angel Gabriel says to Mary, ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’. The power from on high with which the disciples are to be clothed is the Holy Spirit. This is the new garment that the risen Lord gives to his disciples, gives to us all. The risen Lord makes the same promise to his disciples in the first reading, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and then you will be my witnesses’. The Lord gives us the Holy Spirit to empower us to be his witnesses in our world. The work that Jesus did in Galilee and Judea, we are now to do in the time and place in which we live, and we can only continue the Lord’s mission in the power of the Spirit that he pours out upon us. If the Lord’s good work is to continue in each generation, he needs a community of faith alive with his own Spirit, what we have come to call the church. Today’s feast celebrates the mission of the Lord’s followers.
In the first reading, the disciples are asked, ‘Why are you men from Galilee looking up into the sky?’ Where should they be looking? Where should we be looking? We need to look at ourselves and at each other, at the church, which is the Lord’s body in the world today. The feast of the Ascension celebrates the transition from the earthly presence of Jesus of Nazareth in a specific place and time to his presence as risen Lord in the community of believers through the Holy Spirit. By his ascension, Jesus did not leave us but moved more deeply into our lives to empower us to become all he is calling us to be. Saint Paul recognized this when he said in his letter to the Romans that ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness’. By ‘weakness’ there Paul thinking of our struggle to pray. There are many other instances of our weakness where the Spirit strengthens us. Today’s feast reminds us that, as individuals and as a church, we need and are given the Spirit to strengthen us to become the Lord’s witnesses and missionaries in our world today.
Twitter: @SJtBClontarf RC