Solemnity of the Ascension
As the corona virus pandemic continues to grip our lives, accompanied by great hardship, especially for vulnerable people, we ask how the readings today encourage us to respond as friends and disciples of Jesus.
In Acts of the Apostles, the eleven apostles are reminded of what they had seen and heard in the years before with Jesus: the Cana wedding feast, calming storms, healing Peter’s mother-in-law, the feeding of the crowds with the loaves and fishes. They had all been present with Jesus on these occasions. They were commissioned, as we are, to continue the work they had done together. However, they continued to question Jesus. Still not comprehending the reality of the moment and hesitant, they were assured, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.’ They remained hesitant of what was happening. We are challenged today to overcome our fear of the unknown and to discover the God of life and love beyond the familiar patterns, known boundaries and limited horizons. It is not in yearning for or holding on the known and the familiar but in re-imagining the future and venturing into the unknown chaos we shall find new life.
The writer of Hebrews speaks of seeing with the ‘eyes of the heart.’ It is a call to see life and reality through the eyes of faith. It denotes a glimpse of the Spirit of God in ourselves and the ‘eyes of the heart’ is trusting in God’s love for each and every one of us and that ‘God is always with us, God will not leave us orphaned. To quote, The Little Prince, ‘It is only with the heart, that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.’
In Matthew’s Gospel the eleven apostles gathered with Jesus who are called to continue his work. It involves forming a community of believers and a community for service. We are sent to open our hearts to Jesus, to stand, serve and be with the poor among us, to welcome people on the edges and marginalised, help the sick, forgive one another and befriend the other. We are assured that the Holy Spirit will be sent to us so that we can make the world we live in a place a place of love as envisioned by Jesus. Matthew does not mention Jesus’ Ascension but assures us of Jesus’ ongoing presence: ’I will be with you.’ He will be among us with scars, experienced as alive. In Acts, Luke impresses upon his community of the urgency about Jesus’ words: ‘You will be my witnesses and you will witness to me in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, even to the ends of the earth. You will be my witnesses.’ Yet we know that it did not happen as expected and look in the wrong direction: ‘Why are you standing around doing nothing? Why are you looking up to the heavens? These words are also addressed to every generation as to the Acts’ community.
Last week, I quoted from Fr Timothy Radcliffe, ‘This is what the Holy Spirit does, thrusting us out of our ecclesiastical nest into mission.’ We saw how the disciples were locked in fear in the upper room after Jesus’ rising from the dead (John 20: 19-23). Many of leaders are still in fear locked behind doors of dogma, doctrine, rules and sanctions rather than the liberating healing mercy of God that does not control or dominate. Today’s readings also suggest that this is not where we are meant to be. Jesus walks our streets and lives in our communities and continues to bear his wounds.
As we look to a world after the pandemic, we are reminded that things need to change. We are not meant to be locked behind doors in our churches, traditions, capitalism, nationalism, patriarchy, elitism, clericalism, self-righteous our self-centredness as individuals or as a nation. We are not meant to keep safe and comfortable but look outwards to where people and planet are. Pope Francis calls this the 'peripheries' [The Joy of the Gospel #20.] where all are included.
The poor are in our faces but we will not see them if we keep look up to the heavens. They can be off the radar for many of us who live lives of comfort and safety. According to the late peace activist, faith and hope is where ‘our ass is.’ Like hope and hospitality and compassion it has arms and legs or it is nothing.
On a feast such as this, we must remember that Jesus continues to have flesh. His ‘glorification’ happened in a body. He treated other ‘bodies’ like they mattered: encountering sick bodies, he healed them; encountering hungry bodies, he fed them; encountering bodies at the peripheries, he brought them back to the centre. The body that Jesus ascends with still has holes in its wrists and feet. It has a spear wound in the belly. His scars are real and it is through those scars and a broken heart that the world enters and finds healing. Those scars are superimposed on our world and our groaning planet. Jesus' wounds show that our wounds, our disabilities, are ways of being human in the world. The wounded Jesus is the image of God. So are we.
God’s reign is evident today when people put their reputations on the line; when they realise they not only have too much stuff and share it; when they make the connection with stuff with exploitation and human bondage; when people do not hide away during a pandemic but continue to protest the tormenting and torturing of asylum seekers; when people see traditional lands of First Nations’ people being devastated by mining; when people courageously challenge the vilification of people in their dining rooms, workplaces, public transport, restaurants, or barbecues because of their economic, social, sexual or religious background. Where were they looking? We cannot respond if we look up or away.
Martin Luther King did not look up at the sky the day before his assassination when he spoke with passion and hope of a time where the civil rights of African Americans would be respected. Archbishop Oscar Romero did not look up at the sky when moments before his assassination when he reminded the oppressive government and military of their obligations towards the poor. Sister Patricia Fox did not look up at the sky before her deportation when the people lived amongst in the Philippines were being murdered, displaced and imprisoned for speaking and standing up for their rights. These, among so many, were/are attempts to incarnate Christ in our world today. Instead of looking up to the sky, the Spirit leads us down the mountain to engage with the waiting world of people below.
Jesus never enjoined his followers to keep apart from the world or remain at a safe distance and critique the world. We are not sent out with a rigid ideology or a fully spelled out set of rules, but rather with a spirit and heart that is open to all, that proclaims God’s acceptance and embrace of all.
The Spirit will empower us as it did the early church to spread the good news of salvation and liberation to ‘the ends of the earth’. The baptism is not about gaining numbers but awakening in people their dignity, their connectedness with God, their capacity and agency to change the world and their responsibility to work together to bring healing and reconciliation; peace with justice; compassion and sharing. Jesus’ God is not ‘up in heaven’ but in a creative, liberating, and supporting partnership with us. If we want to find God we have to look in the places where the Spirit works in people creating, liberating, and helping. Building God’s reign is about building a new world. Building that new world might be struggling to get governments out of the war business; not always putting our own needs above others; not allowing ourselves to be part of the violation of another person; and to give back to God what belongs to God - all of human life, all of creation, all in its future.
Our spirituality is not one that looks to get out of the world and its challenges. It is a spirituality connected to the world around us - the world of people and nature - a world with rich and poor, men and women, young and old, nature and grace, conflict and reconciliation, war and peace, human rights, conflicts in the law, and complexity in issues of justice.
So may we have the courage to let go of the familiar and to embrace a new future. Today’s feast is not about the disappearance of Jesus, but about a new way of being present. Jesus is able to be with us at all times and in places and in all people. We may discover this after Pentecost!!!
Compiled by Claude Mostowik, msc
Director, Missionaries of the Sacred Justice and Peace Centre
President, Pax Christ Australia
Convenor, Pax Christi Australia [NSW]