Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Ascension of the Lord (B)
True Glory

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Eph 4:1-13; Mark 16:15-20

Sisters and brothers, what are we celebrating today? The crucified and risen Jesus ascends into heaven. He leaves his disciples. They will no longer see him in bodily form, the way they used to. How is that a cause for celebration? Does it not rather engender a sense of loss? Is it not a cause for grief?

To reflect on this question, it is useful for us to begin by trying to place ourselves in the shoes of the apostles in the first reading. What might have been on their minds and in their hearts as they stood there “gazing into the sky,” while their Lord and master ascended? What can we gather from the text that we heard proclaimed just now?

Surely, the apostles’ question to the Lord shortly before he ascends reveals their hearts’ desire. “Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Sadly, in spite of all that they have been through with Jesus – including his passion, death, and resurrection – the apostles are still without understanding. They are still concerned about earthly kingdoms and worldly glory.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to judge them, should we? Instead, is it not too easy for us to identify with them? Like them, do we not some also desire earthly glory in one form or another? To mention just one example, does not our desire for glory show itself in the form of an inordinate concern for what others say or think about us? Isn’t that the way of our world? Image is everything, isn’t it? Whether it is expressed in the car we drive, the clothes we wear, or the company we keep, the desire for worldly glory can be found lurking in the recesses of our hearts.

And then Jesus ascends. And in so doing, he demonstrates to the apostles, and to us, the true glory to which we should aspire – not so much the glory of restored kingdoms and triumphant armies, but the glory of being raised to where God is.

Of course, this is not something easy to understand. Is that not why the apostles stare, dumbstruck, into the sky? They still don’t quite get it. They probably struggle with a sense of loss. They probably wish he could take them with him. What they need is the promised Holy Spirit to remind them that where their Lord is going, they too can follow. Jesus has already shown them the way. And we too are reminded of this way by our readings today.

In the letter to Ephesians, we are reminded that the way of glory, the way of ascent, the way up, must first begin with a descent, a going down. “The one who rose higher than all the heavens,” we are told, “is none other than the one who descended” “right down to the lower regions of the earth.” And we know that, for Jesus, this descent was to the extent of suffering a cruel and shameful death on the cross, out of love for us, and the desire to do his Father’s will.

This descent will, of course, take many different forms in our lives. But our readings present us with several general characteristics.

First, we don’t do it on our own strength. We are empowered, gifted, each in our own unique way. We are told, in the second reading, that “when (Jesus) ascended to the height… he gave gifts to (us).” We are given a list of some of these gifts, but the list is not meant to be exhaustive.

Our readings also provide us with guidelines for the proper use of our gifts. Not to make a name for ourselves, or to build our own private kingdoms, but for two very specific purposes, one internal and one external.

Internally, our gifts are to be used for the well-being and growth of the church. As we heard in the Letter to the Ephesians, the diverse gifts are to be used “so that the saints together make a unity in the work of service, building up the Body of Christ.”

Externally, they are to be used to fulfill the mission given by Jesus to the apostles, and through them, to us. We heard this mission expressed in at least two different ways, this morning. In the first reading, we heard Jesus say: “you will receive power… and then you will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth.” In the gospel, we heard him say: “go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation.”

It is only by doing this, by descending to the place of self-sacrificial service through the use of our God-given talents and abilities, that we can hope to enjoy that for which we prayed in the opening prayer this morning: to “follow Jesus into the new creation, for his ascension is our glory and our hope.”

Sisters and brothers, on this joyful occasion, when “God goes up with shouts of joy; the Lord goes up with trumpet blast,” how are you being called to follow Him? What gifts have you been given? How are you using them?

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