Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Ascension of the Lord (A)
Why Are You Still Standing Here?

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20
Pictures: CC iZENstein

Sisters and brothers, why have so many of us come here today? We know, of course, that it is a day of obligation. But why is it a day of obligation? Why is this day deemed important enough for us all to be obliged to come to Mass? We all know that we celebrate the solemn feast of the Lord’s Ascension. But why is this so important as to merit requiring us to come to church? And, in any case, doesn’t it seem strange that we should be asked to joyfully celebrate an occasion on which our precious Lord leaves us? Where’s the joy in that? Aren’t departures more occasions for sadness than of joy?

In reflecting upon these questions, it’s important first to remember that we remain in the season of Easter. We continue to celebrate and to contemplate the single Mystery that is the Lord’s Dying and Rising. Along with Easter Sunday, today’s feast and the feast of Pentecost – which we will celebrate two Sundays from now – are part of a single celebration, part of a single Mystery. More than simply a commemoration of a sequence of events – first the Lord’s Rising from the dead, then his Ascension into heaven, and finally the Descent of the Holy Spirit – each of these feasts helps us to deepen our appreciation for different but related aspects of the one Easter Mystery.

What then is so significant about Ascension Thursday? What does it add to our contemplation of Easter? I believe today's feast highlights something about the Lord’s Resurrection that is often quite easily missed. Have you, for example, ever felt even a little disappointed or confused by Easter Sunday and the days following it? Have you ever felt at least a little envious of those early disciples who were blessed with the joy of encountering the Risen Lord face to face during that first Easter? How easy it must have been for them to rejoice. The Risen Christ was bodily present to them. He ate and drank with them. He blessed and prayed with them. But what about us, who celebrate Easter today? Where is the Lord’s presence among us? How are we to be joyful when he sometimes seems so painfully absent, when we neither see him nor hear him, or so it seems?

What we so easily miss, when we listen to the gospel stories of the apparitions of the Risen Christ, is how elusive he is. When Mary Magdalene reaches out to touch him at the tomb, he immediately tells her not to cling to him and then quickly sends her away (Jn 20:17). When the disciples on the road to Emmaus finally recognize him at the breaking of bread, he mysteriously vanishes from their sight (Lk 24:31). What do these incidents tell us if not that the presence of the Crucified and Risen Christ is a presence in absence. It is not something that we can cling to or store in a safe deposit box, as we might a precious possession. Rather is it instead something that possesses us, something over which we have little if any control, something in which we put our trust, something that gives us hope.

And it is this crucial aspect of Easter, this hope-inspiring presence in absence that today’s feast strikingly brings to our attention. We cannot have failed to notice, for example, how Jesus tells his disciples in the gospel, just as he is being taken from their sight, that I am with you always… to the end of time. He ascends into the heavens, and yet he says he is with us: presence in absence. This may at first seem a bit too much for us to grasp. How can someone be both present and absent at the same time? And yet, don’t we have similar experiences in daily living?

Think, for example, of a person, let’s call him Matt, working in a local office of a foreign company. Things are very difficult, because many procedures in the office are unsuited to local conditions. Plenty of changes need to be made, changes that Matt tries to implement, only to encounter considerable opposition, and even animosity, from longer-serving colleagues. Thankfully, Matt finds a mentor in his supervisor, who supports his initiatives. Under the supervisor’s patronage, reforms get underway. But, before the changes are completely implemented, the supervisor suddenly gets posted overseas, which makes Matt very depressed and apprehensive. Then his supervisor calls him for a chat and explains to him that she is actually being promoted to a regional managerial position, from where she will have the authority to better oversee and further implement the changes that they have been working on together. In her absence, he should continue his work and keep her posted. Matt is much relieved and encouraged after hearing this, because even though the supervisor will no longer be physically present, her newfound authority will give him the protection and support he needs to continue the work he has been doing, perhaps to an even greater degree. Hers will be a presence in absence.

More than that, and just as importantly, hers will also be an authoritative presence. She will be in charge, even more so than before. And this is yet another significant aspect of today’s feast. The Ascension reminds us that Jesus is raised not only to new life, but also to the right hand of God the Father. And our readings tell us what this means. It’s not just that we are to imagine Jesus seated next to the Father on some imaginary throne in the clouds. Rather, as the second reading tells us, has he been raised far above every Sovereignty, Authority, Power or Domination, or any other name that can be named, not only in this age, but also in the age to come. Jesus puts it more simply in the gospel: all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. The Ascension reminds us not only that the Jesus’ presence among us is a presence in absence, but also that it is a presence of ultimate authority. Christ the Lord has been put in charge.

This too is what gives us hope. And hope is what moves us to respond to yet another important aspect of today’s feast, yet another characteristic of Christ’s presence among us. Not only is it a an authoritative presence in absence, but it is also a presence that sends us out, a presence in mission. As Jesus says in the gospel: go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations…

Why then are we here today, sisters and brothers, if not to celebrate and to experience anew this marvelous ongoing presence of the Crucified and Risen Lord in our midst? Here, in this church, we are gathered as an assembly of believers to listen to his Word and to break the Bread as once he did with the disciples at Emmaus, and so to allow our hearts to burn within us, moving us to go wherever he sends.

Sisters and brothers, we began our meditation with a question. We asked ourselves why we have come. Perhaps it is fitting that we also close with another question. And what better question than the one that we find in the first reading today? Given that our Crucified and Risen Lord is so authoritatively present among us, given that he now sends us on the same mission that was entrusted to him by his heavenly Father, can we afford to continue standing here looking into the sky?

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