8 May 2016
Some years ago I had occasion to visit a married couple, friends of mine, during a time of great sadness for them. The husband’s brother and his wife had been tragically killed in a car accident three months earlier leaving behind them two very young children, now orphaned. My friends decided to look after the children. When I met the two small children 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.
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. In fact the end of the gospel tells us that the opposite is true. We just heard ‘Now as Jesus blessed them he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven. They worshipped him and went back to Jerusalem full of joy; and they were continuously in the Temple praising God.’ This is hardly the description of people thinking of themselves orphans.
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 Ascension.
Our first reading reminds us: ‘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 and also in the gospel 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 is 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. Pope Francis is constantly alluding to this in his statements and actions.
And it is happening. In comparison to when I was growing up when the priest did everything, now we have lectors, Eucharistic Ministers, 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 needs to happen here in our Church in Ireland! 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 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.
As St. Paul tells us there are 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 how we refer to them or to which ethnic or religious group they belong. Here in Ireland we need to ‘welcome the stranger’ just as many of our forebears sought a welcome in America, Australia, England and other parts.
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, your Church, is called 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.
Adapted from a sermon of Fr Jim Kirstein, SMA