The Ascension celebrates the mystery of Christ’s presence, not his absence. It is however a different presence to that which he had before his death. He is now present in our community, and as a group we must make him present by testifying to him before the world as the community of justice, peace and love. This means that we cannot stand idly looking up to heaven like the disciples when Jesus was taken away from then. With his departure Jesus entrusts his community to carry out his mission. They are to make the absent Jesus present to the world at large.
‘Go out to the whole world; proclaim the gospel to all creation.’ What a tall order! Without a doubt, these words were heard enthusiastically in the early Church when Christians were in full expansion and their communities were multiplying all across the Empire. It was a time when the Gospel was heard with fresh ears and eager hearts. It spoke of liberation and a whole new way of living. It was an idea whose time had come.
But how do we hear the Gospel today when our ears are tired and are our hearts are bombarded with so many other messages that seem far more exciting and promising? How hear the command of Jesus to go to the whole world when we ourselves are powerless to retain those who are abandoning our churches because they no longer feel the need for our religion?
I was very struck by the meeting last Sunday between Pope Francis President Raul Castro of Cuba when they met in the Vatican. Castro praised the Pope for helping to broker last year’s diplomatic breakthrough between Cuba and the United States. That’s very significant in itself with a promise of a whole new phase in the relations between the US and Cuba. But what the President said next was truly extraordinary. He declared that Francis had inspired him to consider returning to the Roman Catholic Church! When you consider that there was a total ban on religion over the last half century in Cuba and that atheism was promoted everywhere, this is an amazing turnaround for its president.
At a later news conference, Mr. Castro promised a warm welcome for Francis when he goes to Cuba in September before visiting the United States. “I promise to go to all his Masses, and with satisfaction”, he said. “I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church. I’m not joking.”
Obviously Pope Francis is able to speak to many people in today’s world of different persuasions. And he seems to speak of Jesus with a freshness that appeals and makes sense in the modern world. Of course it’s not just his words but his lifestyle that continually betrays his great concern for the poor. The Jesus that the Pope believes in and carries in his heart is the poor Jesus. It is the Jesus that sought out the poor and mingled with them speaking of God’s love and mercy for each of them. It is the Jesus who was often surprised, even amazed at how the poor people put their wholehearted trust in God.
Pope John XXIII was convinced that the deposit of faith will always remain the same, but our way of expressing it for each generation will change to adapt to the times. Hence he called the Council so as to adapt to our present age. Our task is very similar today. We need to ask what kind of world or worlds are people living in today? In what paths do men and women of modern culture seek God? How does the Good News of Jesus want to make itself present to men and women of our day?
The Ascension means that we are trusted. We are trusted with thinking in new ways; with expressing, celebrating and incarnating the Christian faith in such a way that we can pave the way for God’s action within modern culture. Yes it is a tall order but we are not alone. Perhaps it begins by receiving Christ into our hearts in prayer. Remember that the Apostles went back to the Upper Room to await the fiery and graceful joy of the Holy Spirit. Infused with that same Spirit they were able to speak the many languages to that complex crowd, according to how each one could hear.
No one knows what Christian faith will look like in the new world that is emerging, but it probably won’t be a clone of the past. The Gospel has power to inaugurate a new Christianity.
Sunday, 17th May 2015