I have to admit that it bothers me a little that in the part of the United States in which I live the observance of the Lord's Ascension has been transferred from Thursday in sixth week of Easter to what would normally be the Seventh Sunday of Easter. Part of what bothers me is that this transfer throws off what might be called our "liturgical arithmetic." According to Acts 1:3 - Jesus "presented himself alive to [the apostles] by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God." As the beginning of the footnote to this verse in the New American Bible puts it: "Appearing to them during forty days: Luke considered especially sacred the interval in which the appearances and instructions of the risen Jesus occurred and expressed it therefore in terms of the sacred number forty (Dt 8:2)." The so-called "Gospel of the 40 Days," during which Jesus imparted to his apostles much more about the kingdom of God is very important to Christian tradition. Be that as it may, the Ascension of the Lord is an important observance. As my pastor pointed out last evening at the Vigil Mass, perhaps the transfer allows more Christians to participate in this important liturgical celebration.
I am always fascinated by Luke's account of Jesus' Ascension with which he begins the second volume of his two-volume work. Volume two is called "The Acts of the Apostles," or "Acts" for short. Acts is sometimes referred to as "the Gospel of the Holy Spirit." There are three aspects of the Lord's Ascension according to Luke that each year give me much to ponder. The first is that despite now being witnesses to Jesus' resurrection and receiving instruction from the risen Lord over the course of forty days, his disciples still ask Jesus, just prior to his Ascension, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" Old ideas, our human preconceptions, die hard. It is clear that Jesus' disciples, despite all they've been through, are still looking for this-worldly deliverance. What they are hoping for is a king, like David, to unite Israel, overthrow their Roman oppressors by force, and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel as a major player in the ancient Levant. Given that this weekend is Memorial Day weekend, we can see this same kind of religious nationalism prevailing in the minds of too many Christians in these United States. Don't get me wrong, it is right and good that we honor those who died serving our country. As we do so, we should also ruminate on the ruinous nature of war, which rumination should cause to consider whether chest-thumping bellicosity befits a country that often trumpets itself as a Christian nation, or at least a nation that is largely made of citizens who profess Christianity. But our country is not the kingdom of God on earth. What we might ask about the apostles, we should ask of ourselves, "When will we ever learn?"
The second aspect of Luke's account of Jesus' Ascension that strikes me is related to the first. This aspect is what the two men in white garments, who are not up in the air with Jesus, but who, according to Luke, "stood beside" the awe-stricken disciples (Acts 1:10). Those who witnessed Jesus' Ascension did what you and I would do- stood there looking at the Lord ascending in slack-jawed wonder. As they stand there looking up in awe, these two men in white garments, standing beside them, say, "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven" (Acts 1:11). I have taken to describing this as "leveling their gaze." You see, as disciples of Jesus, our job is not to inhabit another world, but to fully engage this one. Jesus will come back and bring heaven to earth. In the end, we will not go to live in the sky. Christian doctrine holds that the earth will be renewed and restored; it will be fashioned into an eternal paradise.
Jesus is resurrected, which means he has a physical body. Like Jesus, we, too, will be resurrected and have physical bodies. Physical bodies inhabit space and so require a place to be. The place God has made for us is this earth. Just as Luke tells us, via the two men dressed in white standing beside those whose gaze is fixed on the sky, that "This Jesus...will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven," the inspired author of Revelation conveys
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (Rev 21:1-2)The third aspect of Luke's account of Jesus' Ascension that I find myself pondering each year is when the Lord himself tells his followers, "But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). He even tells them that, in addition to being baptized with water, in the manner of the baptism Jesus himself received at the hands of John the Baptist, "in a few days you will be baptized with the holy Spirit" (Acts 1:5). Bearing witness to what they have experienced first-hand, being what Pope Francis has called "missionary disciples," is what they are to be engaged doing, not staring up at the sky. The Holy Spirit is given them to empower them to be witnesses to what they have seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled. The Greek word translated as "witnesses" in this passage is martyrs. Jesus' promise to baptize them with the Spirit, of course, points toward the first Christian Pentecost that occurs in the next chapter of Luke's work. It was at the first Christian Pentecost that Jesus' promise to send the Holy Spirit as his post-resurrection presence in them, among them, and through them is fulfilled. Just as the Lord's Ascension occurred forty days after his resurrection, Pentecost is fifty days afterwards.
We hear Luke's account of Jesus' Ascension in our first reading from Acts, in today's Gospel we hear Matthew's account of the same event. There is an unsurprising consonance between these two accounts. Matthew, too, points to mission and hands on what we call "the Great Commission." The Great Commission consists of going forth to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [Jesus has] commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20a). They are sent to do this with the Lord's assurance that he is with them "always, until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20b). Again, how he remains with them is by means of the Holy Spirit, who is the mode of Jesus' presence until he returns.
All of this sounds very glorious, extremely enticing. I think often the enticing part stems from something similar to what the apostles expressed when, even after forty days of post-resurrection instruction, they asked Jesus when he was going to fulfill their preconception, which was a misconception, of what he, to their minds, as the Messiah, should fulfill. To put it succinctly, the glory of the Lord is something very different from the glory of this world. This is something Jesus shows us in the Incarnation from start to finish. He was conceived by a girl who was a nobody, living in a remote village in Roman-occupied Israel. In Jesus' day, the Jews were a marginal people. Whatever historical glory Israel had ever achieved was centuries in the past, a time to which Jews of Jesus' day, as his disciples question just prior to his Ascension demonstrates, looked back upon longingly. We might characterize this with a slogan, "Make Israel Great Again!" Jesus was a marginal person among a marginal people. No doubt, Jesus' was a disappointment to many as Messiah. His claim to messiahship, especially given what he said being Messiah consisted of, was likely ridiculous to many others from the get-go. In addition to all that, as the inspired author of the Letter to the Hebrews points out (see Hebrews 7:12-16 ff) and then seeks to explain, Jesus was not even a member of the priestly tribe of Levi, but was of the non-priestly tribe of Judah. While it may not seem an obvious conclusion, what all this points us toward is- being a disciple of Jesus first leads you to the Cross before leading you beyond it.
In order to make Christian disciples, you must first be one. In this regard, actions speak louder than words. How you are doing loving your neighbor, assisting the poor and needy, the widow, the orphan, the mentally ill, the seemingly hopelessly addicted, in working to make that upside-down reality Jesus taught as the reign of God a reality, despite the worldly chances for success? Being a Christian is not adherence to a set of clearly defined propositions, let alone a list of rules, like the 613 mitzvot, a list of prescriptions (dos) and proscriptions (donts), strict adherence to which makes one holy, as the Pharisees, like Paul before his conversion, believed. Being a Christian means living according to the Spirit. What is the life of a Spirit-filled person characterized by? Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, awe in the presence of the Lord (which does not consist, according to Luke, in standing there staring at the sky), Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Generosity, Gentleness, Faithfulness, Modesty, Self-control, Chastity.