May 11, 2013

Ascension of the Lord: Begin at the end

"This Jesus who has been taken up . . . will return . . ."

Acts 1: 1-11
Eph 1:17 - 23
Lk 24: 46-53

Have you ever picked up a magazine, maybe casually waiting for a haircut or in the doctor’s waiting room, opened it and began at the back, flipping towards the front? I hope I’m not the only one who has done such a thing; I suspect I’m not.  I don’t think we would ever do that with a book or wait until the end of a movie to enter the theatre then remain to see how it all began.  We begin at the beginning and allow the story to unfold. 

However, when we read any of the four Gospels, in order to capture the sense of the early Christians and the Apostles who carried the message of the Lord out to the ancient world, we should actually begin at the end of the narrative.  For the end is really the beginning.  St. Paul preached to the Gentile communities nothing about the baby Jesus in the manger.  There is no reference to shepherds, magi, or singing angels in the preaching of St. Paul. The Gospels as we know them were in the process of being formulated at a later time. Yet, even if Paul had the Gospel of Luke in his hands, his preaching would have remained the same.  

Our second reading from Ephesians for today’s feast is one example of this.  It is typical to the theme of Paul: “. . . the exercise of his great might, which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion . . .” (Eph 1: 20-21).

Paul preached a Christ crucified and raised and now seated at the right hand of God the Father, for this is clearly the essence of our salvation and the core of the message of who Jesus is for humanity. Paul began with the resurrection as he introduced Jesus those who would listen to him. Therefore, for us Christians it all begins with the resurrection, everything else of Jesus Christ is understood in light of that, including his infancy.

While we think in linear terms, as how we experience life moving from birth to death, in the case of the risen and ascended Lord, we must begin at the end of the Gospel narratives, which is really the beginning. In that light, the Ascension offers us quite a perspective.  Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his book Jesus of Nazareth, Part two, says this about the Ascension: “Because Jesus is with the Father, he has not gone away but remains close to us. Now he is no longer in one particular place in the world as he had been before the ‘Ascension’: now through his power over space, he is present and accessible to all – throughout history and in every place.” (JN, p. 284).

The Apostles, according to Luke today, seemed to understand this.  When Jesus ascended and was no longer visibly present, he was now present to them and all who would come to believe, in a fuller way: “They . . . returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the Temple praising God.” (Lk 24: 53).  No sadness in his leaving them but great joy in his promise to remain in an unlimited way, no longer limited by space and time - a great mystery indeed. Yet, one we encounter consistently.

In the sacraments of our Church, in our prayer, in our charity we find the risen Lord. Still, we who find ourselves living in this in between time from Resurrection to the Second Coming may feel at times overwhelmed. More and more these days, we see what has been called a certain “Christophobia.”  That isn’t some sort of Christian disease but an open rejection of the Christian message and Christian morality, and in some cases of Christ himself from indifference to hostility. Many Catholics and other Christians today have found themselves in physical danger simply because they are Christians. Think of the Middle East for example – Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, China just to name a few.

We hear this rejection of Christian morality in the media, we see it in public policy, and we experience it in a justification of behavior and the choices that people make.  Everything is determined out of what benefits me and the common good is not considered. It’s all about today and the past is forgotten. What is sacred in the Christian message such as human life, marriage, the dignity of the person for example is grabbed and redefined.  What God has given us for our good is minimized for the sake of what “I” think is a better idea. The effect of such decisions on the good of society is minimized in favor of what benefits me today.  

The Ascension of Jesus, his promise to remain among us in his Spirit whose coming we celebrate next week, calls us to witness to a better way – a higher form of moral living in keeping with the Gospel Jesus entrusted to his Apostles and through them to his Church. So, like the Apostles we just don’t stand here, waiting for the next crisis to fall or struck helpless with fear.  As the first reading from Acts today relates at the end of the passage, the Apostles stood staring up into the sky and two men (angels) say to them: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? . . .” (Acts 1: 10).

In other words, get on about it!  Jesus had commissioned them to “be my witnesses.” There is a mission to carry out and a Gospel to proclaim.  We, every one of us, due to our baptism, have a mission to carry out.  It may not be to the “ends of the earth,” but to our parish, our family, our neighbors, co-workers, our friends or wherever we may find ourselves.  Living the Gospel in convincing and authentic ways without fear and with great joy is our task.  It is a mission that leads ultimately to union with God beyond this life but this life is where we are now.   

Our weekly celebration of the Mass is a constant reminder of this mission as we leave with hearts renewed by his word and strengthened by the Eucharist. The resurrection and ascension may be the end of the Gospel writings but in faith it is our beginning and our hope.
Gladden us with holy joys, almighty God,
and make us rejoice with devout thanksgiving,
for the Ascension of Christ your Son
is our exaltation, and where the Head has gone before in glory,
the Body is called to follow in hope.

(Collect for the Ascension)