Thursday, May 13, 2010

Behold, I Am Sending You The Promise Of My Father. Go, And Teach All Nations, For I Am With You Always, Until The End Of The World.

The Ascension of the Lord
Reading I
Acts 1:1-11
In the first book, Theophilus,
I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught
until the day he was taken up,
after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit
to the apostles whom he had chosen.
He presented himself alive to them
by many proofs after he had suffered,
appearing to them during forty days
and speaking about the kingdom of God.
While meeting with them,
he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem,
but to wait for “the promise of the Father
about which you have heard me speak;
for John baptized with water,
but in a few days
you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
When they had gathered together they asked him,
“Lord, are you at this time
going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He answered them,
“It is not for you to know the times or seasons
that the Father has established by his own authority.
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.”
When he had said this, as they were looking on,
he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.
While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going,
suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.
They said, “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.”
+++    +++     +++    +++
Psalm 47
God mounts his throne to shouts of joy:
a blare of trumpets for the Lord.
All you peoples, clap your hands,
shout to God with cries of gladness,
For the LORD, the Most High, the awesome,
is the great king over all the earth.
God mounts his throne to shouts of joy:
a blare of trumpets for the Lord.
God mounts his throne amid shouts of joy;
the LORD, amid trumpet blasts.
Sing praise to God, sing praise;
sing praise to our king, sing praise.
God mounts his throne to shouts of joy:
a blare of trumpets for the Lord.
For king of all the earth is God;
sing hymns of praise.
God reigns over the nations,
God sits upon his holy throne.
God mounts his throne to shouts of joy:
a blare of trumpets for the Lord.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Reading II
Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:19-23
Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands,
a copy of the true one, but heaven itself,
that he might now appear before God on our behalf.
Not that he might offer himself repeatedly,
as the high priest enters each year into the sanctuary
with blood that is not his own;
if that were so, he would have had to suffer repeatedly
from the foundation of the world.
But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages
to take away sin by his sacrifice.
Just as it is appointed that men and women die once,
and after this the judgment, so also Christ,
offered once to take away the sins of many,
will appear a second time, not to take away sin
but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.

Therefore, brothers and sisters,
since through the blood of Jesus
we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary
by the new and living way
he opened for us through the veil,
that is, his flesh,
and since we have
"A great priest over the house of God, “
let us approach with a sincere heart
and in absolute trust,
with our hearts sprinkled clean
from an evil conscience
and our bodies washed in pure water.
Let us hold unwaveringly
to our confession that gives us hope,
for he who made the promise is trustworthy.
Luke 24:46-53
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Thus it is written
that the Christ would suffer
and rise from the dead on the third day
and that repentance,
for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached
in his name to all the nations,
beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.
And behold I am sending
the promise of my Father upon you;
but stay in the city
until you are clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany,
raised his hands, and blessed them.
As he blessed them he parted from them
and was taken up to heaven.
They did him homage
and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy,
and they were continually in the temple praising God.
There is an apparent contradiction, if one looks carefully at the Gospel and the First Reading of today's Mass. The contradiction is all the more surprising in that both readings are traditionally believed to have come from the same hand - the evangelist Luke.

The Gospel passage describes the appearance of the Risen Jesus to his disciples in the upper room. As described by Luke, this took place just after two other disciples had returned from their encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. It is the Sunday after Jesus' death, Easter Sunday. Apparently on the same day, Jesus brought his disciples out to Bethany (just outside Jerusalem). There "he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven." Ascension on Easter Sunday?

On the other hand, in the Acts of the Apostles, also a work of Luke's, we are told that Jesus "had shown himself alive to them after his Passion ... [F]or 40 days he had continued to appear to them and tell them about the kingdom of God." It was at the end of this period - almost six weeks after Easter! -- that "he was lifted up while they looked on, and a cloud took him from their sight." Which of the two accounts are we to believe is correct?

It is even possible to push the mystery of the Ascension back to Good Friday. Jesus says in John's gospel, "When I am lifted up, I will draw all things to myself." The word "lifted up" can apply to Jesus being lifted up on the cross but also to being raised to new life and being lifted up to the glory of the Father. There is also the striking remark made by Jesus to the "good thief" on the cross: "This day you will be with me in Paradise."

There is, of course, no need for us to get upset at these discrepancies. What they do tell us is that we have to be very careful in reading and interpreting the post-Resurrection stories of the New Testament. Any literal or fundamentalist reading (which our older catechisms tended to give us) needs to be avoided. What is important is not what is being said but the deeper meaning of what is being said.

And that applies to the concept of the Ascension itself. The Ascension of Jesus does not mean that he literally began to float up into space. To understand it in such a way leads to unanswerable and ridiculous questions: How far did he go? How long did it take him to get to heaven? Where is heaven? Is it above Jerusalem? How do Australians or South Americans or Norwegians get there? And so on...

The Paschal Mystery of Jesus' passion, death, resurrection, ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit forms one unbroken reality which is to be understood by faith. If Good Friday says Jesus truly died, Easter Sunday says that he is alive. And the Ascension adds that the Risen Living Jesus is together with his Father in glory.

The optional Second Reading from the Letter to the Hebrews describes the experience of the Ascension in very biblical language, highly redolent of the Hebrew (Old) Testament. Christ is our one and only High Priest. He did not, like the Temple's High Priest, enter a humanly-built sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, but entered directly into the sanctuary of God's presence on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the former high priest entered the Holy of Holies every year with "blood not his own", the blood of animals. Otherwise, Jesus would have to suffer on our behalf again and again.

But Jesus appears before God once for all to remove our sin by the sacrifice of himself and his own life blood. Jesus has not only entered the sanctuary; he has opened up the sanctuary of God's presence to us also by the outpouring of his blood. Cleansed by that blood and with the "pure water" of baptism, and full of faith, a total commitment of self to Jesus, we can approach God with confidence that he will take us to himself.

In the meantime, though, there is work to be done. Jesus, in leaving us with his physical presence, now expects us to carry on his work, to do what he did, and to do "even greater things".

But first, he tells his disciples to go back to Jerusalem and stay there and to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. This will be Pentecost; it will be their Baptism when they will be filled with the Spirit of Jesus himself and given their mission to continue Jesus' work.

However, as Jesus speaks, they still at this late date show how little they understand the mission of Jesus. (Their ignorance is only a symbol of our own.) They ask him, "Is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom of Israel?" After all they have seen and heard, they still have narrow-minded nationalistic dreams. Ironically, of course, the answer to their question is a very definite Yes-but not at all in the way they are thinking.

Because, after they receive the Spirit of Jesus in themselves, they are the very ones who will begin to inaugurate the Reign of God not only in Israel, in Jerusalem and Judea, but in time to come to the very ends of the earth. If only they could see now the results of what they started!  This is their mission - and ours: to carry the message of Jesus to the whole world.

As Jesus spoke, he was covered by a cloud (the sign of God's presence) and taken from their sight. He's gone - or is he? They all just stood there, says Acts, gaping upwards to the empty sky. Then two "messengers" (angeloi) appear: "Men of Galilee, what are you doing looking skywards? This Jesus, who has been taken from you to God, will return in the same way you saw him go."

They will not now find Jesus in the sky, in "heaven". They are, as the hymn advises, to "lower their eyes". They have to go back to Jerusalem. Jesus is to be found and made present by them and in them.

They - and we - in word and deed are to tell and re-tell the story of Jesus' life, suffering, death and resurrection. They - and we - are to call people to a radical conversion, to forgiveness of their sin through an intimate reconciliation with God, with their brothers and sisters and with the world in which they live and are a part.

Today, on this feast of the Ascension, that mandate is given to each one of us again. And it is in carrying it out that we truly honor the meaning of this feast.

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

'the new and living way he opened for us through the veil, that is, his flesh'

How beautiful! The Way of Jesus is the living way of his flesh - not the 'way of all flesh' that we share with Joshua and which leads to death. Jesus' Way is clearly the Eucharist.