Solemnity of the Ascension of the Christ
Today’s feast is about being sent to ‘find God in all things.’ It is not about Jesus’ absence, but his presence everywhere. It is also about how we are present in the world pointing through our engagement to his compassionate heart and the power of the Spirit. Jesus’ ascension connects the life of Jesus and the mission of the Christian community. It marks of a new kind of presence – one mediated to the world through the lives of people.
‘Why are you standing there looking up to the sky’ is a question addressed to us as church and as individuals. To look away from what is before us is to avoid the daily reality of our sisters and brothers and our groaning Mother Earth. Jesus has left his footprints on the earth and we are called to step in them and cross all kinds of barriers and divisions. The promise, You will receive power’ – is the power to develop a culture of tenderness; to love as he loved; to make God’s reign present by loving the hungry, the naked, the powerless and homeless; to resist those who dominate, exploit, and treat others unjustly; to persevere in the face of difficulty and opposition; and do things we never thought possible such as courageously raising our voices on behalf of people who suffer. We are called to speak it with a vision that transcends the limits of our own language and tribe, system and circumstances. The prophetic dimension of Easter does not end with Jesus, it starts with us. We do not go with a rigid ideology or a set of rules, but with a spirit of openness, inclusivity, forgiveness and compassion. Easter is about doing life differently. It means going out into the streets.
Jesus was not about us going to heaven or avoiding hell. His way was to make the world more habitable for and hospitable to people. In the early church, following Jesus entailed focus on justice in this world – on the Reign of God – but there were also ideas about the promise of “heaven” with an implicit threat of hell. In recent weeks, we have seen the footprints of the Spirit in peoples’ lives. These footprints are signs of Jesus’ presence who is constantly reshaping our imaginations to show us new ways of building up God’s reign by the way we relate to one another, especially the most vulnerable through tenderness, compassion, respect and sensitivity. These footprints are enfleshed when equality, respect, compassion, and freedom as we work at all levels for an equitable society form the basis of our relationships. We see these footprints when we embody the heart of God: the option that always considers the poor and excluded first. For Walter Brueggemann, “Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.” He says that the prophetic task is not just to give voice to injustice but to the grief and pathos in God. Imagine the anguish and grief in God’s heart as we wait for peace to break out in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq and the many other areas of conflict and pain as well as our communities, families and churches? The disciple of Jesus is called to take that care, sensitivity and power to every corner of the world.
When Jesus instructed the disciples about God’s reign, they talked about the power and violence of restoring the kingdom of Israel. It sounds like many in the church who look to a past glory and power rather than the powerful presence of the Spirit amongst them today -something that takes them to new horizons and pushes boundaries. For the 40 days Jesus was slowly reshaping their imaginations so they would give up clinging to old ways, old thoughts, old prejudices, and see him present in new ways. For Ronald Rolheiser omi, the theology and spirituality of the Ascension is essentially contained in these words: ‘Refuse to cling to what once was, let it go so that you can now recognize the new life you are already living and receive its spirit.’ Jesus tells them not to be concerned about times but to return to Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Spirit that would “clothe you in justice.” When he takes his leave, the two men in white, the colour of martyrdom, have a foreboding presence as they tell the disciples that Jesus is not be found “up there” but soon “down here.” Is looking up to heaven not what political and religious leaders want. Look away! Do not get involved! Telling the disciples to ‘stay in the city’ is a call to be political because it involves engagement in everything that affects people. It is to awaken in people their dignity, their connectedness with God, their power and their capacity to change the world by bringing healing and reconciliation; peace with justice; compassion in partnership with others. It has nothing to do with numbers! We can make a difference if we, and the churches, are not observation platforms watching the heavens, but work to form people into one community where domination, greed, bloodshed, enslavement of nations with money, debt and lies is overcome.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘The body of Christ takes up space on the earth.’ It makes footprints and we are that Body which incarnates Christ by our following, loving and justice making. This can evoke opposition when we remind people that oppression is a major theme in the Bible but not in First World thinking. It may be acceptable to talk abstractly about peace, racism, poverty and discrimination but to make them concrete can become a source of opposition. Bonhoeffer found this out when he was executed!
Pope Francis said in 2013, ‘We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, in our parish or diocesan institutions, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel! To go out as ones sent. It is not enough simply to open the door in welcome because they come, but we must go out through that door to seek and meet the people! ……... Let us think resolutely about pastoral needs, beginning on the outskirts, with those who are farthest away, with those who do not usually go to church. They are the VIPs who are invited. Go and search for them at the crossroads.’
We can be different and act differently. The disciples failed to grasp Jesus’ mission as we often do when we rely on traditions, buildings and structures. They asked if Jesus came to restore Israel to its former political glory and power - a ‘kingdom’ based on empire, strength, security and dominance. This kind of kingdom that tramples on the dignity and culture of people. It is incapable of listening and caring for people. It seeks the status quo. It is silent before injustice rather than interrupting the silence. It makes people captive to their fears, prejudices, and attitudes of superiority. The Spirit that anointed Jesus anoints each of us with power but it is not the power of domination or manipulation but ‘power with’- it is sharing, collaborating, dialogical and relational where all things are brought into relationship with God and with each other, of making all things one – consciously filled with the Presence of God.
We have just had an election in Australia, which the government lost. Though we can vote in governments and replace them much also depends on us to build community of concern, compassion and solidarity with all our sisters and brothers. The early community though living in a ruthless imperial system achieved this. They formed an alternative community of peace with justice, inclusivity and hospitality. They were committed to make Jesus present. If the world was to be renewed, or if the ‘new heaven and new earth’ (according to the Book of Revelation) was to come about, it was through their witness to love of Jesus, his compassion, his solidarity with the marginalised and outcast, his challenges to attitudes of exclusion and his work for justice. As I said, earlier, it can mean opposition and marginalisation. But the Jesus who was crucified is walking with us and reshaping our imaginations, as well as continually reminding us that he is very much alive and with us. Stephanie Boccuzzi, in Catholic Women Preach, reminds us that ‘Ascending is not rising above, it is rising with. Rising with the memory of pain and death, the memory of betrayal and sadness, but also with the hope and joy that comes in the morning.’ It is also rising with our sisters and brothers.
We yearn for the feeling of our presence,
especially when words alone bring little comfort.
Come Spirit, grow in us
that we may root ourselves in your visions of justice and mercy.
Open our arms
that we might console another’s burdens
Speak through our mouths that we might comfort the afflicted
Move our feet that we might march
in solidarity with those on the margins.
In the name of the risen Jesus, Amen.
Out in Scripture