The feast of the Ascension is one of the most important of Christian festivals and yet perhaps one of most neglected in the western church. Western theology tends to stress the earthly life of Jesus and his physical resurrection appearances. Ascension tends to get slightly overlooked as we jump enthusiastically to Pentecost, Christ’s Spirit amongst us. That emphasis is not a bad thing. It instills in us a sense of the reality of Jesus and our relationship with him. But that is only possible because of who he is: because of his relationship within the Godhead.
The theology of Eastern Christianity has a much greater awareness of the awesomeness, mystery and majesty of the Godhead of which Jesus is a part.
In monasteries and churches of the Eastern Church, one cannot escape the centrality of the Ascended Christ… icons, mosaics and images which adorn the buildings depict this unity with God, and in the dome above the altar… the Ascended Christ himself, united with God.
This moment is important, for the purpose of Jesus’ physical presence on earth is now complete. And now, it is time for his disciples – you and I – to continue his work, in the power of his Spirit.
This departing is a leave-taking like no other. We are all familiar with the sadness of farewells and the pain of absence. We have all to some extent experienced that in these past couple of months. And we all know the pain of bereavement. But we also know that the pain of separation can be transformed into a positive experience: one in which our fondness and love for people can grow and develop. And it is only by being separated from Jesus physically that he is able to enter into glory and send his Spirit for all people for all time. In other words, this parting, this Ascension, was an essential moment in God’s purpose, both for Jesus, and for enabling us to do His will. If Jesus had not ascended, his Spirit could not have been released into the world for all eternity. If Jesus had not ascended, the disciples would never have been able to stand on their own feet as his messengers. If Jesus had not ascended, the Church of empowered, faithful believers, could not have been born. If Jesus had not ascended, our experience in all its diversity would not have been united with God. If Jesus had not ascended, we would not have seen and known his glory and his majesty which shines through all things.
A few years ago, I saw a profound visual image of this in Maaloula, a Christian village in Syria, where Aramaic, the language of Jesus is still spoken. It has been a place of pilgrimage for Christians in the Middle East since the 5thCentury. In 2013, it was occupied by militant extremists. Most of the residents eventually fled the village, but not before several had been murdered and executed. The several churches in the village were all ransacked; their icons smashed or stolen and some of them burnt.
The Jihadists set fire to one of the most important churches and smashed the altar, but the image of the Ascended Christ in the dome could not be obliterated. And even after the fire, it still looked out. Fortunately, after several months, the village was liberated by the Syrian Army, and since then the churches have been restored. And the risen Christ is present still amongst the thousands of Christians who are surviving in Syria and Iraq and so many other places where there is conflict.
Notice the question of the disciples to the Risen Lord in our Gospel reading. For 40 days, Jesus had revealed himself to his disciples. He had reassured them; taught them; prepared them. And now the disciples ask: ‘ Lord, is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” Don’t we feel a sense of urgency? In a world so horrifically filled with conflict and now economic uncertainty, and environmental concern, don’t we wonder: ‘Lord, when will you establish your kingdom?’
But note Jesus’ response. He says: ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But YOU will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to all the ends of the earth.’ (Notice the inclusion of Samaria and the ends of the earth in this quote – the lands of the gentiles, the outcast, the ‘other’, the enemy. We are called to be witnesses even amongst our enemies and amongst the outsiders – to everyone.) In Luke’s writing, these are the last words we hear Jesus say. We may be wanting Jesus to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. But his last words to us are that it is WE who are called to do that – not by our own power, but by the Spirit of God who works through us – if we open our hearts, our minds, our wills and our lives to him.
But to do that requires openness, awareness, preparation. And so this time between Ascension and Pentecost represents another time of waiting. This isn’t a time between grief and unbounded joy like between Good Friday and Easter Day; but between the joy and wonder of Jesus’ ascension to heaven, and the privilege of receiving the grace and gift of the Holy Spirit empowering us to do his Will. It is these moments of waiting that provide the fertile soil through which we receive the grace of God to respond to his call. And if we parallel that with what we have all experienced in these last couple of months… what seeds have been planted in this anxious period of waiting, and are we going to nurture them?
How are we to respond to Jesus’ call as a community of faith? The answer comes in the prayer that Jesus prays for his disciples before his arrest, that we heard in our gospel reading. Note that Jesus doesn’t just pray for his close friends. But for all ‘who will believe because of their words’. Before anything, his prayer is for unity. This is not the same as uniformity. Neither does it mean necessarily agreeing with one another all the time. But in matters of faith and in matters of Christian community, we are called to be in unity with one another, and in continuity with the Church through the ages. This requires faithfulness, diligence and trust. And the foundational quality of unity is always reciprocal love. As we all know, this is not something we can assume to be given or something that automatically sustains itself, but it requires work, understanding, respect and commitment, none of which are always easy.
For the disciples, it was no surprise that their Mission was to begin in Jerusalem, or that the disciples returned to Jerusalem praising God and worshipping in the Temple, with a confidence and joy which had been totally lost just weeks before. Jerusalem was the place of Jesus’ passion and death and resurrection. It was also the place of the disciples’ failure and abandonment of Jesus. The message of the Risen Lord was to begin and reach out from the very place of the cross, of failure, and of despair. And it does so today, as a message of hope and new life.
So the Ascension is a time of great joy. Jesus is no longer with us in body, but by his Ascension he is able to be with us for ever. We have seen his glory, and it is not temporary, but eternal.
The work begun in Christ is continued by his Spirit in the world – by his body on earth, the Church, of which we are a part, as a healing, transforming, unifying presence.
The responsibility of revealing that transforming presence is now ours. As St. Theresa of Avila wrote:
Lord, you have no body on earth but ours; no hands but ours, no feet but ours.
Ours are the eyes showing your compassion to the world;
Ours are the feet with which you go about doing good;
Ours are the hands with which you are to bless us now.
To him be glory, now and for ever. Amen.
Acts 1: 6-14
The Ascension of Jesus
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Matthias Chosen to Replace Judas
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son ofJames. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
John 17: 1-11
Jesus Prays for His Disciples
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.