The Ascension

[Scripture Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Eph 1:17-23; Mk 16:15-20]

What would you say if someone asked you, “who are you“? You would probably tell them what you do. I am a monk, or a farmer, or plumber or lawyer…whatever. If they pushed you a little and said, “Wait, that is what you do, I want to know who you are.” You would then no doubt say, “leave me alone, it is none of your business, I know who I am but I can’t put it into words“.

This is a good point. It is difficult to put into words who we are — it is even difficult to put into words what we are experiencing. It really takes a special gift to be able to express in words who we are. Poets have that gift. A word or a phrase can open up a whole world to us. Think of the phrase from Yeats, “the center cannot hold
(The Second Coming). A simple enough statement, but it can apply to many things, not least our own culture which has been described as a culture of death. It cannot last. The center cannot hold, if we continue we will self-destruct. Another phrase, this time form T.S. Eliot: “in my end is my beginning” Think of all the graduates this time of year—ending one phase of their lives just to start another. Or, the words could apply to our death. In our end, our death, we just begin a new life. In our end is our beginning.

One of my favorite lines comes from Rilke: “we live our life forever taking leave“. Think of all the times we say, goodbye. We are all ways saying goodbye to friends and relatives. Did you ever feel the nostalgia at the end of a visit and each party goes their separate ways? Saying goodbye seems to have a finality about it. It evokes a vague feeling of loss or more precisely of homesickness. If you sit with this feeling for awhile and even meditate on it, you realize that most of our adult life we live with a vague feeling of homesickness and we live our life forever taking leave.

Today’s Gospel, which expresses the mystery of the Ascension, is a leave taking story. Jesus is taking up—he disappears, he is gone. You might think that the disciples would fall apart much as they did after the crucifixion. It is all over, it is not what they expected and so they began to disperse and go their ways. The little community was on the verge of braking up. We have a totally different reaction in today’s Gospel. The disciples are filled with joy, they return to the temple and they even begin preaching and taking all kinds of risks like handling deadly snakes with impunity. I think the point of the snakes is just a graphic way to say the disciples are filled with an energy that death itself cannot quench. What happened to them is the very life of Jesus flowed into their very self and into all future disciples of Jesus. In this way today’s feast tells us who we are. We are Christ bearers or as Paul says ambassadors of Christ.

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he prepared his disciples by what is known as his farewell discourse. At one point he says, “I do not say that I shall pray to the Father for you, because the Father himself loves you…” Jn. 16:26. Does this mean that Jesus disappears from the scene and now we have direct contact with the Father? A footnote in my Bible explains, “Jesus is still the only mediator but the disciples’ faith and love make them one with him and therefore dear to the Father: mediation could not be more perfect(NJB Jn. Ch 16 footnote).

When the Father sees the Son he now sees us with him and when he sees us he also sees the Son. We are one body and one spirit in Christ. This is who we are.

Today’s feast is the culmination of Jesus’ life on earth and the beginning of his life in heaven, but now our humanity is with him in heaven. Human words cannot fully express what this means. We live in hope, we live in faith, but above all, we live in love, a love that unites us to Jesus and makes us one spirit with him.