They were still staring into the sky when suddenly two men in white were standing near them, and they said: “Why are you people from Galilee standing here looking into the sky?” Acts 1, 1-11
The more I think about the meaning of today’s liturgical celebration of the Ascension of the Risen Christ, the more convinced I become that it is much more about us than it is about the risen Jesus Christ. I have come to believe that it is a celebration that might more appropriately be called something like “The Passing of the Baton” or “The Bestowal of the Mantle of Responsibility”. In departing from the disciples, the risen Jesus assured his disciples that they would be empowered by the Holy Spirit to do remarkable things: “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judea and Samaria, and, indeed, to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1, 8). And, as descendants of those first disciples, through baptism we have inherited that very same responsibility to witness to Jesus and his Gospel by the way we live our lives.
Moreover, the very same prod directed to those very first disciples is aimed directly at us: “Don’t just stand there looking paralysed and overawed! Roll up your sleeves and set about the task you’ve been given! Go, be the Gospel in action for everyone you encounter!”
There’s a delightful story about a little boy who, in the manner of many other little boys, confronts his grandfather with a litany of guileless questions: “Grandpa, what happens when you die?” While Grandpa explained as well as he could, the boy had another question: “Does that mean you won’t be here anymore?” “Well, yes, that’s true”, replied Grandpa. But the inquisition continued: “Does that mean you won’t be able to play cricket with me anymore?” “Yes, it does, I’m afraid.” “And that means you won’t be able to take me fishing either?” “Yes, it does.” The questions kept tumbling out of the little boy’s mouth until he concluded with: “Well, Grandpa, when that time comes, who’s going to do all these things with me, if you’re not around?”
The wise grandfather was equal to this last question, and explained: “Well, when that time comes, it will be your job to do those things for another little boy.”
Today’s commemoration of Jesus’ Ascension is the official announcement of “It’s your job now. It’s your responsibility.” As followers of Jesus, as members of today’s Christian community, it’s time for us to be the mouth, the hands, the feet and the presence of Jesus to everyone we encounter and with whom we engage.
Those who recorded the lived experience of those very first disciples telescoped what happened in their lives into a compressed time frame. In reality, it probably took time for the disciples to grasp the meaning and magnitude of the responsibilities that had been dropped into their laps. Almost certainly that did not happen in the space of a calendar week. They probably asked each another if they thought they would be equal to the task. They were almost certainly daunted by the prospect of what lay ahead of them, especially when they started to think about it. They were every bit as human as Jesus had been, and he was thirty years old before he ventured into the unknown. Admittedly, had been well-taught by Joseph and Mary, and he, in his turn, had schooled his disciples thoroughly. But there was still plenty of evidence to suggest that they were not always the sharpest knives in the block. There were times when they were slow in grasping what he tried to teach them. And now, they had to imagine a different future for themselves and find the creativity and courage to venture beyond their geographical and emotional confines. They needed a nudge to shake them out of their caution, doubt and hesitation. Jesus promised them the impetus of the Holy Spirit and Luke described how “two men in white” (heavenly visitors or angels) put a “blow-torch” under them.
In a very real sense, the Risen Christ just had to be set free from the confinements of an earthly body, the narrow worlds of Galilee and Jerusalem, and even of Judea and Samaria. He was even too big for the confines of the whole physical world. His Spirit needed to soar and be available to the whole of the created universe. The Ascension is the marker event for that Spirit to soar free, and a pointer to the transition that the disciples would experience when the Spirit enveloped their lives.
As we approach both today’s first reading from Acts and the gospel, we need to exercise a little caution. Scripture scholars tell us that the Gospel of Luke and Acts are two parts of one extended piece of writing, both written by the same person. In fact, Acts is sometimes referred to as Luke’s “Gospel of the Holy Spirit”. In what we now call Luke’s Gospel, the Ascension of Jesus occurs on the very first Easter evening. There, Luke interprets Jesus’ Ascension as the completion of his mission to the world as the Messiah, God’s anointed one (Luke 24, 50-53). Then, in the opening verses of Acts (the continuation of Luke’s Gospel and today’s first reading) Luke locates Jesus’ Ascension forty days after Easter, and he describes it as the launch of the disciples’ mission to the world. So, two different purposes meant two different ways of illustrating them. And, let’s not miss the symbolism here. Luke parallels Jesus’ ascension with the story of the Prophet Elijah being taken up into heaven in a whirlwind. In the process, he lost his cloak, which fell at the feet of his friend and successor, the Prophet Elisha. Elisha’s taking up of Elijah’s cloak prompts the other prophets to say: “The spirit of Elijah has come to rest on Elisha.” (2Kings 2, 15, However the whole of 2 Kings 2, 1-18 is well worth reading.) The echoes of this story with that of the coming of Jesus’ Spirit on the disciples are loud and clear. Note, too, that “forty” should not be passed over. Jesus fasted, prayed and reflected in the wilderness for forty days before he began his ministry. The Chosen People wandered in the desert for forty years before reaching the promised land. And Luke says the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles at Pentecost, forty days after Easter. Forty is a symbol for a significant period of time for growth and maturity to take place. We would do well not to take it literally.
The long and the short of all this is that Ascension is all about us. It is the signal that the mission of Jesus is being handed on to us just as it was to those first disciples. We, too, are commissioned to make real for our world the compassion, the forgiveness, the acceptance and love of Jesus. To do that, we, too, need daring, imagination and creativity, as well as faith in the Risen Jesus. Moreover, we are assured that the Spirit of Jesus has been set free to enliven and inspire us very ordinary people to witness to Jesus and make him alive