Feast of the Ascension
We are called to remember who we are and today we are being named ‘Theophilus’ <the lover of God> a title addressed to a variety of communities. Today’s feast can cause us to wrestle with our rational side. People have become impatient and even left the church because of a focus on ‘heaven up there’ which does not speak to the everyday lives of people. What we are called to is to see the world differently where God’s love comes together with love of neighbour and all creation. Ascension is not about Christ’s absence, but his presence everywhere. We are reminded that it is not just how Jesus is present in the world but our presence. We cannot separate his presence and our witness.
The Risen Jesus among us calls us to do life differently. Covid-19 has, despite the suffering and death, been good news for the non-human community, the atmosphere, the earth and water systems because of radical changes in human behaviour. Our response to it shows that we can change our behaviour and not ‘stand looking unto heaven.’ The change in behaviour can be made possible by allowing ourselves to behold the beauty around us and the wisdom of living fully within the community of life. The reign of God cannot be built. Buildings and constructions are about control of people and resources for our own benefit. Living in the reign of God is about discovering and learning to live in harmony with God who is present in our midst.
This is the promise the disciples heard: ‘You will receive power.’ It is the power to love as Jesus loved; to be present with and for the hungry, the naked, the powerless and homeless; to resist those who dominate, exploit and treat others unjustly; to give oneself for others; to persevere in the face of difficulty and opposition; and do things they never thought possible.
As Jesus’ disciples we have another agenda different to the powers in the world. Jesus’ agenda can seem like madness especially when we talk about seeing and embracing all as one – including our enemies, or sharing when our world is infected by materialism.
Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation’ (Mark 16:15). Can we take Jesus’ presence among us seriously? That he is present in every poor person, every sick person, every prisoner, even our enemies? Do we seriously believe that there is no place, no person and no creature from which Jesus is excluded? Many with power want to silence those who preach concern for the environment and that creation reveals God’s presence. There are many who see a concern for politics, economics or medicine as meddling and wish to limit us and the church to just keeping to ‘Jesus and religious matters’. They want to keep God at arm’s length. But today we are reminded again that Jesus is to be found everywhere and that respect for creation is a ’religious matter’ and a political matter.
In recent weeks, we have been made aware how the footprints of the Spirit in our lives when we exercise the power given us by Christ. These are signs of Jesus’ presence in our lives who shows us another way which involves compassion, respect, sensitivity to people especially the most vulnerable including creation. These footprints are seen when our relationships are based more and more on equality, respect, freedom and compassion. These footprints become flesh when we work at all levels for a society that seeks to overcome inequities. These footprints are seen as we try to embody or make flesh what is at the heart of God: what the church now calls, an option that considers the poor and excluded first. What must be the anguish in God’s heart as we wait for peace to break out in so many countries as well as communities, families and churches? The witness that any disciple of Jesus is called is to be ‘Theophilus’ – to be the heart of God in the world.
The disciples failed to grasp Jesus’ mission. They still looked for a kingdom based on empire, strength, security and dominance. But they are told to wait for the ‘Other’ because this small and fearful group can get Jesus’ message so wrong and take on things that have nothing to do with Jesus; not to mention cut and run when things get difficult. When we fail to rely on the guidance of the Spirit we find the dignity and cultures of people trampled on; we find, as has occurred with Sri Lanka in recent years, a silence and failure to resist an injustice that is at the root of the conflict; we have deluded ourselves on issues relating to women and the treatment of minorities; we have allowed ourselves to be captive of our fears, racism, prejudices, attitudes of superiority. To wait for and listen to the Spirit provides a valued added dimension to our witness. This is why the disciples are told to ‘stay in the city’, ‘stay where they are’ and ‘stop looking up’ because the One who is coming is already among us in the world. We do not have to look for it but step into it – here and now.
To ‘stay in the city’ means to stay engaged in everything that affects peoples’ lives. It is a call to be ‘political’; to be about changing this world in which we live. It does not mean gazing into the heavens but to look towards our suffering earth and its people. This is where witness is needed. Jesus has left his footprints on the earth. We are called to walk in them. This is where God is with people. This is where courage and strength are required. The German pastor and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer witnessed to Christ’s presence in his opposition to Nazi oppression. He said, ‘The body of Christ takes up space on the earth.’ In other words, the Body of Christ makes footprints. We are that Body – making Christ incarnate by our following, our loving and our justice making. This is also the place where making the gospel real can evoke opposition especially when we might remind people that oppression, which is not a major theme in our First World thinking, occurs some 3000 times in the Bible. So we may readily accept general talk of peace, racism, serving the poor and discrimination, but as soon as they are made concrete in our lives they become a source of opposition. What we see depends not only where we stand but who we sit with. From the position of privilege, we can read the scriptures with our own lenses where oppression does not come up as a major theme. Our sisters and brothers, the broken and the wounded and the hurting can help us. As Fr. Jon Sobrino says, they are the voice of God and change the way we see the world and God’s justice are the intended outcomes. The power that Jesus points to is different. It is to do with nonviolence. It is the power to love that comes from the Spirit. This is the witness that we are called to carry to the ends of the ends of the earth. It involves sensitivity to people’s hurts and needs and a tenderness in our connection with them. The disciples were still rooted in a return to a cultural, political, economic and religious system based on the restoration of an idealised history that had more to do with violence and domination. They still failed to fully understand Jesus’ message that the reign of God is a call to service, reconciliation, compassion and self-giving for the good of others and all of creation.
What witness do we choose to make? Let us stand up boldly knowing that we need each other. The world of the poor, the hurting, and the wounded depends on us to do more than argue with one another. It is a matter of remembering that we are connected with one another - interconnected as Pope Francis reminds us. The diminishment of one diminishes all. The raising up of one in dignity, raises all. .
This day presses us with the old question too: ‘Why do you stand looking up into heaven?’ Jesus has left his footprints on the earth… these are his muddy footprints over all the pages of the gospels. He is also saying to us, ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses.’ With Jesus’ departure the responsibility has shifted to us to proclaim and make God’s reign present. Will we take that on board? Jesus’ basic message is to go to Galilee, to the mall, the parish church, the pubs, cafes and restaurants ……. and ‘you will see me there’. It is not about increasing numbers but awakening in people their dignity, their connectedness with God, their power, their capacity to change the world as well as accept their responsibility to bringing healing and reconciliation; peace with justice; compassion in partnership with others. We cannot look to Jesus to do that. It is our responsibility. Jesus has left his footprints for us to follow in. Let us walk as people who are named ‘Theophilus’. Can we live as a lover of God <Theophilus> in love with all creation and people? Teilhard de Chardin wrote in 1957: we Christians have been charged with keeping the flame of desire ever alive in the world …. The flame must be revived at all costs.
Fr Claude Mostowik msc