At the end of the Annunciation scene after Mary said her ‘fiat’, that is ‘let it be done unto me according to thy will’, we are told that the angel departed from her. In other words, the angel left her to get on with it without any more assistance from that side. Nevertheless, she wasn’t totally alone. The angel had already promised that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of the Most High overshadow and assist her.
Something similar happens at the Ascension. By departing the scene Jesus is telling his disciples to get on with it. However, he is not leaving them as orphans. He, too, has promised them the Holy Spirit and Jesus must leave before the Spirit can come. The ascension, therefore, is but one aspect of the broader mystery of the resurrection. No longer is Jesus bodily present among his disciples. This, if you like, is the sad part. The far more important truth is that Jesus, in his risen existence, is present among us now, present whenever his people are in need, present in hearts calling us to be disciples and to be his hands, and feet, and voice in our lives. Therefore, to celebrate this feast today is not to recall a past event — that day long ago ‘when he went up to heaven’ — but to rejoice that Jesus is our living Lord, with us now, leading and guiding us, because he is not tied down to any single moment in earthly history.
The focus of the ascension is on the heavenly reign of Christ, not on the details of the ascension itself. In this way there are many parallels between the Ascension and the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor. In both cases the location is a mountain and mountains are always special places for meeting God in the Bible. The cloud, another favoured symbol of God’s presence, is also mentioned in both events. It was the Lord present in the pillar of cloud that led the Israelites to safety in the Exodus story. But what’s really significant is what happens to Jesus. Both events reveal something of glory of Christ which is normally hidden from people’s eyes. In the first instance the Jesus the apostles thought they knew so well is revealed at the transfiguration as God’s beloved Son. Yes, they knew Jesus was something special, but God’s beloved son who surpassed the long esteemed Moses and Elijah is an entirely different matter. As for the ascension, well today’s preface sums up who Jesus is very neatly. There he is revealed as the Lord Jesus, the King of glory, the conqueror of sin and death, the mediator between God and humanity. These are not just fancy names, rather they mere human words that try to measure up to and express something of the deep mystery that Jesus is for all of us.
Departure is another theme in both events. Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about his departure at his Transfiguration, and this departure was fully realised at his ascension, but it was not a departure that left his disciples abandoned. The Greek word St Luke uses for departure at the Transfiguration is the word Exodus. Thus, St Luke wants us to understand the ascension in the light of the Exodus story. Jesus’ departure is about leading His people into freedom, into the promised land.
The Ascension, therefore, marks a new beginning for the disciples, not an end. A whole new vista is opening up before them, but they have to move out into this uncharted territory without the bodily presence of Jesus in front of them. They must now begin to see Jesus in a new way and it turns out that the absence of Jesus made his followers grow in maturity. And once they receive the Holy Spirit they are full of Jesus and their only thought is to proclaim that Jesus is indeed the Lord of glory, the conqueror of sin and death, the mediator between God and humanity as we will hear in the preface today.
The first reading today states categorically that their chief duty after the ascension is to be witnesses to Jesus. Today we can only marvel at how successful they were at that. They didn’t hang around for long looking up at the sky. Rather, beginning in Jerusalem and then moving from there to the rest of Judea and Samaria and finally to the ends of the earth, they spread the good news of Jesus with extraordinary enthusiasm and passion. So great was their endeavour that one could say, we will never see the likes of this again. A bit like what they said of Leicester winning the premier league against all the odds last night – we will never see the likes of it again.
The ascension likewise leaves us with much to do today. We too cannot afford to keep looking up to the sky. Rather we are called to be witnesses. I suggest a good place to start is to follow the apostles to the Upper Room where they waited with Mary for the coming of the Holy Spirit. There we will realise that before Jesus sent the church into the world, he sent the Spirit into the church. That same order must continue today. It was the Holy Spirit that enabled the apostles to perform such marvellous deeds. It is only by the same Spirit that we too can become faithful witnesses to the humble and glorified Jesus.
Allow me to finish with one more sentence from today’s preface which implies that the ascension of Jesus is our great hope. “Jesus ascended not to distance himself from our lowly estate, but that we, his members, might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.” Yes, Jesus is our great hope. Where he has gone we hope to follow.
Sunday, 8 May 2016