Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Feast of the Ascension - Where Do We Go From Here?

Over the past few weeks I have been doing some long-overdue spring cleaning. Going through literally 30 years of papers, notebooks, photos, books and CDs.

All of the memories can be a bit overwhelming.

It's hard to let go of the past.

One wonders if this is what plagues those who cannot throw anything away, they cannot part with their possessions: old papers, pictures, matchbooks; ticket stubs, paper clips, old shoes, worn-out clothes - an overflowing, unimaginable heap, a veritable mountain of memories.

We often want to keep everything as it is - preserve life as it was.

Maybe this is why hoarders cannot let go. It's just too hard to go through all of their things and get rid of the old.

If we don't rid of the old, we won't have room for the new.

Yet human nature is weak.

For "there is comfort in the familiar even when the familiar is uncomfortable."

The disciples of our Lord knew this temptation. They didn't want Jesus to go because they wanted to cling to what was, what was familiar, what they knew.

We, too, do not go gently into that dark night of faith.

But enter we must.

I wonder - if - in a way - this was what the disciples were experiencing as Jesus led them out to Bethany (according to Luke's account of the Ascension - Luke 24.50-51)

* He led them out as far as Bethany. This little detail is easily passed over, but let us see why Christ did this.

The village of Bethany is about 2 miles east of Jerusalem on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives; the home of Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary.

By taking leave of the disciples outside of Jerusalem, this meant that they passed through the garden of Gethsemane where he suffered, past the hill of crucifixion, Golgotha, and past the garden where an empty tomb confounded the world.

He then raised his hands which bore the marks of the nails and blessed them.  *Adapted from Fulton Sheen's Life of Christ, chapter 61, The Ascension).

In this simple act, Christ calls the disciples to relive the passion, the Paschal Mystery, so as to enter into the joy of the risen savior and prepare them to receive the Holy Spirit.

Yet After Christ ascends to heaven, the disciples remain staring into the sky. The disciples are confused. They don't understand.
The two men in white robes ask them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?

Seriously, how often are we just as confused as they were - if not more? 

Maybe that’s where we are right now: Looking up into heaven unsure about what to do next.

But the message seems to be: get your heads out of the clouds, and go do what he told you to do. Be His witnesses throughout the world, get to work, you are sent forth, you have a mission!

Be not afraid. Go!
Admittedly, there is something melancholy about the Ascension of Christ even though he has promised them the Holy Spirit and is sending them forth on a mission.

The disciples know that Jesus is not going to be with them in the same way as before, as he had been.

There is a sense that something so good has come to an end. They want to hold on to Christ in the same way as before, but He invites them to a deeper faith.

We all likely know that feeling of transition in life where a loved one moves on. I have seen it here: the children grow up quickly and graduate from 8th grade; they get confirmed; they graduate from high school; they leave for college or the military; they move away; get married; and begin their own families.

We also experience this loss in death or separation. A beloved friend or child, a brother or sister or spouse is separated from us. Or becomes ill or dies unexpectedly. We feel abandoned.

There are those who wish they could have walked and talked with Jesus when he lived on earth, but we cannot get lost in this kind of thinking. 

His Ascension does not mean he was jettisoned somewhere into deep space past Alpha Centuri or is somewhere lost in the cosmos.

No, on the contrary, He is present now, here, but in a new way.

Christ has gone to heaven to prepare a place for us.

Though Christ is seated the Father’s Right Hand, He is accessible, there is a real presence.

He comes to us today in His Word and, as Pope St. Leo the great reminds us: "In His Ascension our Redeemer's visible presence has passed into the sacraments."

So in Christ's Ascension He is still present, but in a new way.

He intercedes for us at the Father's Right Hand. And when He comes again at the end of time he will take us to Himself. This is our hope.

But, let’s face it, coming down the mountain after experiencing Christ’s Ascension was hard work for the disciples; And living the faith, day in, day out, is going to be difficult for us as well.
Perhaps that is why some misguided Christians skip over the gospels and obsess over the book of Revelation, staring into the sky with their apocalyptic calendars, trying to predict the times and seasons of Christ's return - thus doing the very thing the Lord has told us NOT to do!

Jesus’ words: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons” seem to have been ignored or dismissed by the end-time preachers and those groups that attempt to calculate the exact day and time of Christ’s return and preach an invisible coming of Christ where he will rapture the saved, snatching away true believers, leaving the rest of us behind while the world is destroyed. The idea of a rapture is not even found in scripture. It may sound biblical, but it is not. “The bible does not provide a predictive screenplay for [a rapture of only true believers and] worldwide violence and disaster” (Barbara Rossling).

So like those first disciples, we cannot remain staring into the sky. We cannot remain staring into the sky waiting for Christ to get us out of here. No. That’s the tough part. You and I have work to do.  

And it’s not just the priest’s job; it’s not simply the deacons’ responsibility. It's not the RCIA team's job or the ushers' task. It cannot be someone else's vocation.

Each of us must set out to follow Christ intentionally, purposefully, as disciples; living our lives on purpose, for a purpose, with a purpose.

We are all called to bear witness to Christ’s resurrection,  teaching others what Christ taught! Making disciples! Every single one of us is commissioned with this task!

The Ascension of Christ changed things for the disciples, and changes things for each of us.

We often want to cling to what was, to what we had in the past, cling to all that was comfortable, but Christ calls us to something new, a new way of living -- and for us, even a new way of being a parish.
Yet if we fail to trust, and allow Christ to be the Glorified Lord, we won’t be able to receive the Holy Spirit. 

He calls us to let go of the old so that the new can enter in. 

Christ’s ascending to heaven is not a death…it is part of the Paschal Mystery… and when we enter into that mystery, yes, we will die to sin and death so that new life can enter.  We cannot cling to old hurts, old agendas, failed expectations.

So after Christ ascended to heaven, the two men ask: Why are you standing here? Go! New things are about to happen! You will not be alone. The Holy Spirit will guide you. Go make disciples and teach all that Christ commanded. 

And as Saint Paul tells us: "May the father of our Lord Jesus Christ enlighten the eyes of our hearts that we might see how great is the hope to which we are called." May we see the new way Jesus Christ is present to us, to the surprising ways the Holy Spirit can work, even amidst difficulty and pain.

For in His Ascension, Christ raises our human nature to the joy 0f heaven.

Christ assures us:

Behold, I am with you.


To the end of time.

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