Homily – Ascension of the Lord (Year C) May 12 (Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:19-23; Luke 24:46-53)
Just where did Jesus go when He ascended? In a medieval artistic rendering of the Ascension, Jesus’ feet dangle from under a cloud as the rest of His body disappeared. This definitely represents a literal way of reading the text as well as a spatial understanding of the cosmos. God is ‘“up there” somewhere, and when we die we go either “up there” or “down below’” as the case may be.
Advances in our understanding of the universe — and of God — present us with exciting new possibilities. God is not “up there’” but everywhere at once even while retaining divine transcendence. Heaven and hell are not places in our sense of the term but states of being. Jesus did not “go” anywhere but was reunited with God the Father. But we poor humans are left with limited human words and concepts to express so great a mystery.
What did the apostles know and when did they know it? Scripture bears witness to the painful fact that during the earthly life of Jesus His disciples did not fully comprehend His teachings, actions and most importantly, His death and resurrection. Understanding came slowly after the Easter experience. In the upper room, Jesus opened their minds by removing two causes of confusion and misunderstanding. First of all, He insisted that all of Scripture — what we call the Old Testament — bore witness to Him. He unlocked the inner meanings of key passages. This gives us an insight into how Luke’s community read Scripture towards the end of the first century. Secondly, these same Scripture passages foretold and explained the reason for His passion, death and resurrection. His suffering and death was not a fluke or accident but part of the divine plan. The result was that repentance and forgiveness of sins was to be proclaimed to all people.
The author of Hebrews used the symbolism of temple and sacrifice to describe our new relationship with God through Jesus. His intent was to remove fear from our hearts and instill in them confidence, faith and hope. Jesus died once and for all — no need of further sacrifices. His death and resurrection opened the path to God, a path that we do not have to tread alone, since Jesus is always with us. He has given us the time before He comes again to learn the lessons of godly living and purify our hearts and souls. A vital part of this is the call to serve the common good and the needs of others. We have been given the Spirit for transformation and purification. Our prayer is that we use the time and opportunities wisely.
We remember that Luke closed his Gospel with the appearance of Jesus to the disciples in the upper room followed almost immediately by His Ascension. In his second volume, Luke reopened the story and expanded that time frame — in this version, Jesus spent 40 days preaching and teaching among His followers before being taken up. He had to cool the excitement and expectations of the apostles. They were expecting fireworks — Jesus would expel the Romans and restore the kingdom of Israel. He answered their plaintive questions about when this would occur with a demand that they do something very difficult for humans: let go of control. Figuring out God’s plans and intentions was far beyond them! They could not control the divine timetable or force God’s hand — everything would take place only when God decided and that was known by God alone. Besides, Jesus had a lot of work for them to do! He ordered them to wait patiently in the Holy City until the power from on high — the Holy Spirit — would be given to them.
As Jesus left them and appeared to be disappearing in the sky, the disciples stood staring at the sky. The two men in white robes — presumably angels — gave them advice that still stands. We should not worry about when and how Jesus will come — that will be clear when we need to know. In the meantime, this world is where we work out our individual and collective salvation and there is much work to be done. As with the first disciples, let us use the “in between time” joyfully and in a manner that gives glory to God.