May 7, 2016

Feast of the Ascension: "Goodbye and Hello"

"Men of Galilee, why do you stand there looking at the sky?"

The famed English playwright and poet, William Shakespeare, is likely the most quoted author we’ve ever had.  His plays and poems remain timeless. One famous line is taken from his play Romeo and Juliet.  As these two lovers leave each other one night, Juliet speaks fondly to Romeo: “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” In their context, those famous words of Juliet imply that leaving Romeo is both a moment of sadness and a time of sweetness.  She is sad to leave him but also filled with a certain sweetness knowing they will see each other again.   

Strangely, that line came to me as I was preparing these readings and I wondered for a moment what this Shakespeare play might have to do with the Feast we celebrate today, that of the Lord’s Ascension into heaven. Yet, in the earthly life of Jesus, this transitional moment after his resurrection we might say was bitter sweet for the Apostles.  He had been with them for a number of years, they shared intimately in his teaching and his moments of divine revelation. They were his trusted disciples, his friends. There was great disillusionment at his tragic death but greater joy at his resurrection. As he left this earth, how could they carry on without him?

Although there was still much for them to learn, these disciples knew Jesus, now revealed as Savior and Son of God, invited all to a new kind of love, a charity or agape encounter with the living God that is based in communion with one another and with God.  The new covenant shed and sealed by his blood on the cross, forever realigns us in a new way.  It invites all humanity to see God not as distant and uncaring but as up close and merciful. 

That being said, for the Apostles who at the Last Supper were told by Jesus: “I no longer call your slaves but friends” the leaving of our Lord from their physical sight and presence must have been a moment of sadness.  They stood for a time at the sight of the Ascension, as our readings from Acts today tell us: “While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

While the feelings of the Apostles are not stated we can conjecture that Luke wants to tell us they were momentarily stuck.  “What next” may have been on their mind.  Similar to that emotion of sadness when a loved one leaves us or we say “goodbye” to a close family member or friend.  We stand for a moment in the sadness of that parting and wonder if life will ever be the same again.

Yet, we know the lives of the Apostles never would be the same again.  They were told by Jesus: “. . . to wait for “the promise of the Father
about which you have heard me speak; . . . you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1: 1-11).  So, the sadness of losing sight of our Lord would be replaced by the sweetness, the joy of a new presence; a new way in which Christ would be present and active among them and in the Church about to be born on Pentecost. Jesus parting from this earth was a moment of sadness tempered with the hope of something more – the coming of the Holy Spirit. 

So, this Feast of the Ascension, while it may not grab us in the same way that Christmas or Easter or even next Sunday with the remembrance of the Spirit’s coming may hold us, it remains an important moment of both joy and anticipation. 

So, we share in the joy of Christ himself.  The joy of gratitude the Apostles felt by the privilege they had to be witnesses of all that Jesus did and said and the joy of knowing that Christ will never abandon us. 

Just as they, we also cannot stand idly looking up into the sky as the Apostles did at that moment.  Our faith is not static and fixed; it is a living person, Christ Jesus himself, alive in every age and we know that once the Spirit came upon them, these Apostles would begin the mission Jesus entrusted to them.

So we can wait for our Lord in prayer and the work we do to share in the mission of witnessing to the Gospel of Christ.  It may be a kind of bitter sweet moment for us and we certainly feel at times unprepared. But, because we know that many have not heard much about the good news Christ has brought we hear that God is inviting us into a new kind of love relationship with him and others based in love and peace. This Jubilee Year reminds us that we are called to enter the mercy of a loving Father God and thereby be empowered to share the good news of Christ.   

Alternatively, many have rejected or at best grown indifferent to that message. Whenever, for example, a couple comes to inquire about a wedding and I realize that one of the spouses is not of the Catholic faith, I always ask if he/she have ever considered joining the Church.  At times when a diverse crowd gathers for a wedding or a funeral of a loved one, aren’t those moments to evangelize?  When a couple brings a child to be baptized, shouldn’t we see that encounter as a time to witness to this good news of Christ in the Church and invite the parents to renew their own faith?  When we gather each Sunday, particularly at Christmas and Easter, those are priceless moments to present the faith of the Church in positive and welcome way.  These are all prime times that provide for us opportunities to truly be who we profess to be – the body of Christ in this world. 

Our faith is far more than just a “feel good society.” With Jesus himself as head of the Church and we his members, let’s use this coming week to prepare – to “go to the city and wait” as Jesus requested of his men.  We should pray that the Spirit received in Baptism, Confirmation, and Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist offer us the courage and strength we all need to be authentic witnesses. The Spirit may need to wake us up a bit!

Until he comes again as he left, it is our turn to be his hands, feet, word, and witness.  “Come most Holy Spirit . . .”

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 of Feast)