13 May 2018
Some years ago I decided to visit some friends of mine, a married couple. It was not a visit I was looking forward to then because I knew that it was a time of great sadness for them. The brother of the husband and his wife also had been tragically killed in a car accident three months earlier leaving behind them two very young children, now orphaned and so this couple had decided to look after the children. When I met the two small kids during that visit I could not help feeling very sad at the thought of their being orphans at such a young age and having to start life without their real parents who obviously had adored them.
The one thing we cannot say about today’s feast, the Ascension of the Lord, is that the apostles felt themselves orphaned at the departure of Jesus. In no way did they consider themselves orphans, so that they felt abandoned by Jesus when he ascended to heaven. For the apostles the Ascension meant three things 1) It was an ending. One stage was over and another had begun. Formerly Jesus was with them physically. Now his presence is that of a firm faith knowing he is still working with them. 2) It was a beginning. They are to take the place of Jesus and continue his work. 3) The Ascension gives the disciples the certainty that they had a friend not only on earth but also in heaven. There awaits them and us the self-same Jesus who on earth was so marvelously kind, compassionate and forgiving. To die is not to go out into the dark. It is to go to him.
The Ascension is not a farewell feast; it does not lament the absence of Jesus. Rather it celebrates the new way Christ became present to his people through the gift of his Spirit. For sure, Christ went away from us so that we no longer experience his physical presence but 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. We never read this in the Acts of the Apostles or in the letters of St. Peter, St. James, St. John, St. Paul etc.
In Acts 1.8 our first reading today we heard: ‘you will be my witnesses …even to the ends of the earth’. So today’s Solemnity, like that of Pentecost are feasts of Christian maturity. They are a call to continue Jesus’ mission in today’s world and the difficulties we face there. The power of the Spirit is with us. In Acts today 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’.
We must not look up to heaven lamenting the absence of the Lord like the disciples did in the first reading today. 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 Lectors, Eucharistic Ministers, and the Laity as members of Parish Pastoral Councils etc. In some countries because of the absence of priests, the laity do even more, like conducting funeral services, preparing people to be baptised and confirmed etc. This may not be enough for some who feel the Church is moving too slowly in this direction. But we need to pray more and more to the Spirit to lead us into the way of all truth. We need to pray that we will have the courage to let go of traditional practices which no longer serve our witnessing to Jesus. 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 but seems the best way forward?
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, prostitutes, homosexuals, alcoholics, drug addicts, divorced people etc.
“Lord Jesus, we believe that you have ascended to be with your Father and that the real meaning of today’s feast is that each of us has been given adult status in your Church to be your witnesses throughout the world. Give us your powerful Holy Spirit to enable us to be effective witnesses of your loving concern for all”.
Fr. Jim Kirstein, SMA.