12 May 2013
Luke 24. 46-53
A certain man was telling his friend that his wife whom he loved had many marvelous qualities but one thing she did which really frustrated him was that she could not throw out anything from the house even if it were of no further use. ‘She just keeps clinging on to everything we have, unable to let go’, he said.
The Ascension is the feast of letting go.
After he appeared to Mary Magdalene she clung to his feet so that he had to say to her: ‘Do not cling to me’ (John 20.18). The amazing fact in today’s gospel is that the apostles, after seeing Jesus ascending to his Father, went back to Jerusalem full of joy and were continually in the temple praising God. One would have thought that they would have been quite depressed and sad having seen Jesus departing. But no, they now fully accept that it was necessary for him to go, so that the Holy Spirit would be given to them. They did not cling to Jesus but accepted their call to be witnesses relying on the powerful Holy Spirit.
Neither did they feel themselves orphaned or abandoned by Jesus when he ascended to heaven. For the apostles the Ascension was an ending. One stage was over and another had begun. Formerly Jesus was with them physically. It was also a beginning. They were to take the place of Jesus and continue his work. The Ascension gives the disciples the certainty that they had a friend not only on earth but also in heaven. That same Jesus who on earth was so marvelously kind, compassionate and forgiving, awaits them and us. To die is not to go out into the dark. It is to go to him.
The Ascension does not lament the absence of Jesus. Rather it celebrates the new way Christ becomes present to his people through the gift of his Spirit. He is closer to us now than he ever was before. When Jesus was on earth he was limited like us in space and time. This is no longer true of him. He is, so to speak, out and about. He is present to us in an equally powerful but different manner. We can turn to him in any place, in any situation knowing he is there for us. It is important to realise that the apostles and disciples never regretted the departure of Jesus after his Resurrection and Ascension.
In Acts 1.8 we heard: ‘you will be my witnesses …even to the ends of the earth’. So today’s Solemnity, like that of Pentecost is a feast of Christian maturity. It is a call to each of us to continue Jesus’ mission in today’s world amid the difficulties we face there. The power of the Spirit is with us. In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus warned his disciples to stay in Jerusalem until they were clothed with power from on high, the promise of the Father. It is as if Jesus were saying to the disciples: ‘please don’t claim to be working on my behalf as my witnesses unless you wait for, receive and live out of the power of the Spirit. If not, you will fail’.
So we should pray often, even daily: ‘Come Holy Spirit’.
We must not keep looking up to heaven lamenting the absence of the Lord like the disciples did in the first reading. Of course, heaven is our goal eventually. We must face here on earth what God asks us to do and keep our feet firmly on the ground. We must set out to bring his gospel, his Good News to the ends of the earth. This is why any attempt to keep Christians in an attitude of dependency and immaturity without real responsibilities and voice in the Church is contrary to the meaning of the feast we are celebrating today. The Second Vatican Council strongly emphasized this.
And it is happening. In comparison to when I was growing up when the priest did everything, now in very many countries we have Permanent Deacons, Lectors, Eucharistic Ministers, Parish Pastoral Councils etc. In some countries because of the absence of priests, the laity do even more, like acting as Catechists (preparing peoples for sacraments, pre-Baptism programmes for parents who want to have their children baptised…) conducting Sunday and funeral services… But we need to pray more and more to the Spirit to lead us into the way of all truth and to have the courage to let go of traditional practices which no longer are meaningful today. Will we have the courage to follow the lead of the Spirit, painful as this may be if it is not what we would like to see happening ourselves?
Rather then than seeing the Ascension just as the departure of Jesus, we should see it as the sending of the Church on mission (in place of Jesus). Rather than seeing the Church as an orphan as a result of the Ascension of Jesus it needs to be seen as being given adult status by God, as being given responsibility to witness to Jesus Christ through the power of his Spirit.
And as St. Paul tells us there is a variety of gifts, that is, a variety of ways of being Church be it as laity, priests or religious. No one group is called to dominate the others since we are all brothers and sisters of our one heavenly Father who uses each of us in different ways. If we want to compete with each other let it be in the area of service to the poor, forgiveness of our enemies, love of all God’s children no matter what unfortunate labels they are given such as – those with AIDS, immigrants, prostitutes, homosexuals, alcoholics, drug addicts, divorced people etc.
‘Lord Jesus, Give us your Holy Spirit to be real witnesses of your loving concern in our world. Amen.’
Fr. Jim Kirstein, SMA