Ascension of the Lord

May 12, 2024

Jesus lived physically on this earth for more than thirty years.  During the time just before his death, he tried to convince his friends that he would eventually be arrested and executed, and that his death would be for their sake and for the salvation of the world.  After he did, in fact, die—and after the Father raised him from the dead—he then tried patiently for some time to convince his disciples that he was indeed alive, and that his “life after death” gave promise that they, too, could live beyond their own deaths.

Now the time had come for him to prepare them for the loss of his physical presence.  As we heard in the first reading today, he was to return to the Father so that the promised Holy Spirit could be a permanent connection for all disciples with the Divine.  The disciples were obviously unprepared for this leaving.  They were still frightened and confused by his death and resurrection.  Even after explaining it all to them, the disciples do not seem to get the message that he was, in fact, leaving them… because they ask, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?”  In other words, they were asking “are you going to become the King so we can be princes and enjoy freedom and power and privilege?”  It was a political question, not a religious one.

Jesus must have sadly shaken his head when he heard this.  Maybe he was even very disheartened.  After three years of living with him… after his dying and rising from the dead…  even after all that, the disciples still did not really understand what he was about.  I can imagine Jesus muttering to himself, “Oh, what’s the use!  God help the Holy Spirit!”  And so, to his disciples, he simply says, “Good-bye and God bless!”  With that, he left them standing there with mouths wide open and eyes searching the heavens.

There is a great painting of this Ascension moment by the New York artist Laura James that adorns one edition of the Book of the Gospels (that is placed on the altar at Mass) that I once saw at another parish.  In the painting only the feet of Jesus are seen, dangling from the top border of the picture, while the disciples below all have their heads turned up to the sky.  It captures the awe and the mystery of that moment, and demonstrates how important that moment is.  We all have moments of awe and mystery when we are immersed in living life to the fullest.  But what follows those kinds of moments is always decisive.

For the disciples, two angels appear to break the spell.  They say to the disciples, “Why do you people stand here anxiously looking at the sky?  This Jesus who has left you will return someday, but for the time being, you will have to carry on.”  The disciples were confused enough when Jesus was with them and trying to explain things.  I can imagine their confusion now that they were on their own.  “Why did he leave us?”  “What does it mean to carry on?”  “What are we to do without him?”  “Was he serious about welcoming everyone, and loving even enemies?” 

Jesus must have looked down at the developing turmoil with a sad smile.  I suspect he didn’t blame his poor, bewildered friends—he was used to their confusion, their dumb questions and their denials.  He knew that, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, those who loved him could do much good despite their confusion and human failings.  He could understand why they were upset.  The physical Jesus, the Jesus who could be seen and touched, was gone and they missed his leadership.  They missed him personally, and were frightened to death of the task of “carrying on”, the task of being a Christian—a task that they were only now beginning to dimly understand. 

The gift of the Holy Spirit some days later at Pentecost would help them to understand that task.  Now it was up to them to teach Jesus to the world.  Now it was up to them to BE Jesus for the world.  It was an awesome task– but for now, those who took it seriously were very, very frightened.  They withdraw from engaging the world and go into hiding until the Holy Spirit overwhelms them and fills them with power and conviction and direction at Pentecost.

We join the worldwide church in worship today, one week away from the annual Feast of Pentecost.  In many ways, we are like those frightened disciples.  We have heard the teaching of Jesus, some of us for many years, and are attracted in some way to it.  There is something inside us that wants to follow Jesus, although sometimes for the wrong reasons (like the apostles).  Some of us are confused about who Jesus really is.  Some of us still have our heads gazing into the sky in awe and wonder, forgetting that the angel said to “carry on” and get to the real work at hand of “being Jesus” for the world.  Some of us are confused about what it means to “be Jesus” because we have not yet opened ourselves to the power of God’s Spirit.  Some of us are still fumbling around asking dumb questions (like the disciples).

And I suspect Jesus is still looking down at our confusion with a sad smile.  He probably doesn’t blame his poor bewildered followers—he’s been dealing with us for a long time.  He is used to us staring at the sky with our mouths open, wondering what to do next.  He is used to our questioning and our searching.  He is used to disciples “not getting it” right from the very beginning.  He loves us and is patient with us.  He knows that those who love him can do so much good, despite their confusion and human failings.

But he also knows that we have each received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Baptism.  And that some of us do not take the time each day in quiet and in prayer to allow that Holy Spirit to speak to us.  He knows that some of us are pre-occupied with our own agendas, rather than being open to what God wants each day.  He has gathered us into communities of faith, and asked that those communities be important to us and our family so that we can be faithful on our journey.

Each week we assemble here in worship, to lift our heads to the sky in awe and wonder, trying to find Jesus.  And each week, through the mystery of the Eucharist, Jesus tells us, “I will return someday, but for the time being, you will have to carry on”.  As we leave here each week to return to our own worlds, we make the decision whether we will join Jesus in that mission or not.  Jesus is depending on us to be his presence in the world today, according to our parish mission statement “in realization of the kingdom of God.”  As we leave this moment of worship today, we will make that decision once again.

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