"Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky . . . "
Acts 1: 1-11
Eph 1: 17-23
Mt 28: 16-20
So, is it “Ascension Thursday” or now “Ascension Sunday?” What day of the week Jesus’ actually ascended into heaven is not clear to us. In the same way, did the risen Christ ascend on the evening of that first Sunday when he appeared to the Apostles three days after his death as Luke seems to imply in his Gospel or was there a period of time between the resurrection and the ascension, as the other Gospel writers imply? If so, how much time? Traditionally, 40 days and so 40 days from Easter Sunday falls roughly on a Thursday, and there is the background for the traditional Ascension Thursday. Pentecost, next Sunday, is taken from the very word, - as in the Pentagon in Washington which has 5 sides to its form - which translates to mean 50 – 50 days after Easter the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles as they waited, according to Jesus’ own instructions, for the Spirit. Also, Pentecost was a Jewish feast so the connection is obvious.
However, for years now, the Ascension was transferred to the Sunday before Pentecost for pastoral reasons: the attendance at Holy Thursday Mass, though a Holy Day of Obligation, was ordinarily very low. So, in order to allow for the larger parish community to celebrate this important Feast back in about 1998 it was officially transferred to Sunday according to the local Bishop’s judgement and the best pastoral need of the people. Meaning for nearly 20 years now we have celebrated Ascension Sunday. So, the decision had nothing to do with being liberal or traditional but rather a sensitive response to the practical realities of the lives of parishioners, especially those who live in western states, great distances from their parish churches.
All that aside, we celebrate an event not a day and so let’s reflect more on this significant event in our salvation:
The famed English playwright and poet, William Shakespeare, is likely the most quoted author we’ve ever had. His plays, poems, and sonnets 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. Now, as he left this earth, how could they carry on without him?
Although there was still much for them to learn and comprehend, 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 you 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,momentarily stuck: “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.” 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). In Acts, the “ends of the earth” is a reference to the ancient center of the world – Rome – where Paul and Peter were martyred and this book of scripture ends.
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 event of both joy and anticipation.
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. We are not orphaned or separated from the love Christ has for us, now hidden behind the signs of the sacraments where the Spirit gives life and breath.
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.
We too can wait for our Lord in prayer and the work we do to share in the mission of witnessing to the Gospel of Christ. While we may certainly feel at times unprepared, 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 based in love and peace. For many of those who have heard the good news, there is still an ignorance that can be addressed.
Alternatively, many have rejected or at best grown indifferent to that message. 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 opportunity to witness to this good news of Christ in the Church and invite the parents to renew their own faith? When we gather each weekend those are priceless moments to present the faith of the Church in a 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.
With Jesus himself as head of his 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!
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.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.