Ascension Day Mass:
Acts 1: 1-11; Ps 46(47): 2-3, 6-9; Eph 1:17-23; Mt 28: 16-20
Is there a contradiction between the story of Jesus’ ascension given at the beginning of Acts, our first reading, and the promise given at the close of Matthew’s gospel, that he will be with us always, to the close of the ages?
We’re told of Jesus’ being lifted up. The original says ‘he was taken up … and a cloud took him from the eyes of them [who were] looking up into heaven’. Now the obvious sense might seem to be that Jesus was lifted up into God’s presence beyond the sky, and it is this sense that underlies the charming but ultimately misleading pictures of the Ascension as a pair of shins, feet and sandals disappearing into the roof. That too would imply he is now at a distance from us. But we could perhaps read it a little differently. One group of the Psalms used to be categorised as ‘songs of ascent’, hymns pilgrims would sing as they walked up the ridge to the city of Jerusalem on mount Zion, and the temple, the place of God’s dwelling. And the great in that world tended to be elevated above the common herd, as in Isaiah’s vision of seeing the Lord in the temple ‘high above, and lifted up’. So the language of ascension has more to do with Jesus entering God’s glory, so becoming invisible to our eyes (‘a cloud took him …’), not necessarily that he is now at a distance from us, although our mode of engaging with each other has changed.
And this is the point of Luke introducing the two men in white garments. We have seen these characters before. The same two, introduced by the same phrase, appear to the women discovering the tomb of Jesus empty on Easter day, and before to the privileged disciples seeing Jesus in the glory of his transfiguration, when they are identified as Moses and Elijah, symbolising the Law and the Prophets. Both, as it happens, were assumed to have been taken up into God’s presence at the end of their lives: Moses, in Jewish tradition, because no tomb was ever ascribed to him, and Elijah in a fiery chariot (which still excites some English rugby fans). Admittedly, that still leaves us with a problem – if, like the women at the tomb, we are told not to look into the earth for the risen Lord ‘why do you seek the living among the dead?’, and like the men of Galilee we are told not to look for him in the heavens, where then are we to encounter him? Luke gives us the answer in his other story of Easter day, the two disciples falling in with a stranger on the way to Emmaeus, who recognise him when he opens the scriptures to them, and breaks the bread. Until the Lord comes again, then, we encounter him in the scriptures and in the celebration of the Eucharist.
The ascension of the Lord also points us to where we are going on our life’s journey. Jesus in his humanity has been taken up into the glory of the Father’s presence, but as we say in today’s preface our hope of glory is that where he, the head has gone we as members of his body hope to follow. This is since Jesus returning to the Father pours out on us the Holy Spirit, bringing us into communion, into sharing life with God. And this begins with our Baptism, our being (Paul says) incorporated into the death of the Lord so we can share in his rising into a creation made new. We come to the glory of the Father, of our being gifted with sharing God’s life through the Son in the Spirit. So God brings us into sharing the perfect communion of love that is the blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit.
While this communion is innate in us it is not yet complete – that completion, unless we are already saints, will take our life’s course. For now, we are on the way, catching only glimpses of where we will be, where we hope to be. Yet Jesus in winning the victory over death and sin has already begun the building of the kingdom. We are pointed to this in the essential continuity established: in the accounts of Jesus’ glorified, risen body still bearing the marks of his passion; and in the experience of some of the appearing of those in glory to aid us on our own journey, for example the appearances of the blessed Virgin to Bernadette at Lourdes or to the children of Fatima. In his inauguration of the kingdom Jesus has brought humanity into the communion of the life of God, once for all, irrevocably. Our essential identity as embodied beings is preserved, the bodies through which we reach out in love and care for one another. At this time of trial we are feeling acutely the pain of the absence of our normal embodied presence to one another; might that make us more sensitive to the presence of Jesus to us in the mystery of sacramental sign?
As Paul says, for now we see things indistinctly, as through a glass, darkly. As C S Lewis put it, in this life we are in the shadowlands, in a pale imitation of the renewed creation inaugurated in Jesus’ resurrection. But our hope is that as members of Christ’s body we too will join him in the fullness of God’s glory, when our joy in God and in each other will be complete.