Thursday 26 May 2022: Ascension Day
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Context: for a Sunday Mass congregation of regular committed Catholics in a small Cumbrian parish - not very culturally diverse, many with professional education; mostly older but a few families
Aim: to encourage reflection on the links between Ascension, Pentecost and the Mission of the Church to mediate the love of God to the world, and on how these challenge conventional understandings of power and achievement
THE MEANING OF ‘UP’
St Luke tells us that Jesus was ‘lifted up.’ He uses imagery that would have made sense to his readers, steeped in the world of the Old Testament: the cloud symbolised the presence of God, the two men in white, his angelic messengers; the prophet Elijah too had been swept up into heaven. But aren’t our own imaginations also steeped in this language of ‘up’ and ‘down’? We talk about ‘top jobs’ and ‘career ladders’, ‘high-up people’ and ‘rising stars.’ Someone who is ‘above’ can ‘look down on’ others and ‘oversee’ them, while those below have to ‘look up to’ them. High positions are ‘commanding’ positions, easy to control and safe from attack. No wonder we associate height with power. No wonder we imagine God dwelling ‘in the highest heavens.’
So, Jesus went ‘up’ to that place of power, of God’s power, to a place where, as Ephesians tells us, he is ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.’ And when he went up, he left the disciples behind. So why, as St Luke puts it in his Gospel, did they return to Jerusalem ‘with great joy’? He was ‘up’, far beyond the human world, and they stayed where they were, with their feet firmly on the ground. Why weren’t they in floods of tears at being separated from their beloved Lord?
ASCENT AND DESCENT
Saint Luke tells us about the Ascension at the end of his Gospel. But he retells the story at the beginning of Acts. The Ascension is not so much the end of Jesus’ earthly life, as the beginning of the life of the Church. It’s a story that turns our ideas of absence and presence, of ‘up’ and of ‘down’ – well, it turns them inside-out and upside-down!
After the Ascent of Jesus comes the Descent of his Spirit, and the idea of power is transformed. Jesus went ‘up’, only so God could come ‘down’. This time, He comes down not as a human being, external to them, but (to quote Romans 5:5) as the Holy Spirit ‘poured into our hearts’. In other words, his power is no longer just external – power over us. It has become power in us and through us. Jesus may be physically absent, but he could not be nearer to us. Now he is present not just for us, but through us, for others.
LIFTING OTHERS UP
In our fallen world, ‘up’ implies competition, rivalry, promotion - in a job or in a football league. If I go up, I go above you. But Christ’s love, present in us through his Spirit, doesn’t lift us above other people. Far from it: our shared Christian mission is precisely to lift other people up. Soon after Pentecost Saint Peter encountered a man who could not walk. Peter healed him, and he jumped with joy. Saul, the arrogant persecutor, had to fall down on the ground before he could see the truth. Then he was helped up by Ananias and began to share in Peter’s mission. He healed a cripple at Lystra, saying to him, ‘Stand upright on your feet.’ When young Eutychus fell asleep during one of Saint Paul’s extra-long sermons and fell out of the window and was killed - a warning to all of us preachers! - Paul raised him back to life. This physical raising up was a symbol of his main task: to build up communities in which people could grow up into mature Christians. Then they in their turn could lift up others.
GOD’S LOVE IN US
It’s been a tough couple of years for everyone. All of us will know plenty of people who are down, from grief or loneliness, sickness, poverty, or anxiety. Lifting up people who are suffering, through acts of generosity, however humble - this is the daily life of Christ’s Church. This is how, as Gerard Manley Hopkins said, ‘Christ plays in ten thousand places, ... lovely in eyes not his ... through the features of men’s faces.’ Kind words to a lonely neighbour, an ear for a grieving friend, a warm welcome for a family of refugees, a smile for a stranger in the street. The parents, teachers, nurses, among you going the extra mile, so that your children, your pupils, your patients, get the lift they need. Then rejoicing, not competing, when they are lifted even higher than you. Mostly we don’t need to work miracles. Or rather, we need just one miracle: the miracle of Christ’s love in us.
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