The Feast of the Ascension (Luke 24:46-53)
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Sunday, May 20th, 2007 Today's readings from The Acts of the Apostles and the gospel of Luke commemorate the feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. They give us a valuable look into the minds and hearts of the friends of Jesus as they struggled to make sense of his death and the events that followed. These men and women are afraid and confused, but would not be silenced as we are told, "they were continually in the temple praising God."
As a kid, the ascension story used to remind me of those vacuum tubes in the old department stores. The clerk would place a document of some kind inside a metal capsule, open the door of the vacuum tube, put the capsule inside, and magically, the document was transported to its destination upstairs—at the boss's desk. Likewise, I imagined Jesus being swooped up and landing with every hair in place to sit next to his Boss.
The vacuum tube no longer works as an explanation. Yet the stories beg us to engage with them—to find ways to make them relevant to our everyday lives. So how do we, as adults living in the age of science and having a certain amount of intellectual pride, engage with concepts like the resurrection and ascension?
At its heart, the ascension story is an expression of wonder, praise and gratitude. Like a cathedral that can never be tall enough or grand enough to convey the sentiments of its builders, the Easter story, of which the ascension is an integral part, is an attempt to convey with words an experience for which words will always fall short.
Like the toddler who responds to the question, "How big are you?" by stretching out her arms as far as she can reach and saying, "Soooo big!" this story is an attempt to articulate the experience of a God who overflows all human boundaries in the lives of those who believe.
This small band of followers of Jesus not only believed in him, they were transformed by their experience. Having encountered Jesus, these people became nearly oblivious to the repression of traditional religious and political sanctions.
The vision Jesus offered gave them a sense of freedom that must have seemed like sheer madness to others. In the first written criticism of these Jesus followers, only sixty or seventy years after this gospel was written, a philosopher named Celsus likened them to "frogs croaking on a dunghill." Nothing could rain on their parade.
This morning, as we consider the ascension of this Christ who lit such a flame under these believers, we need to ask ourselves: What does it mean to say we believe in a God who, following his death appears in sublime peacefulness to his faithful followers, and then returns triumphantly into heaven? This is the basis for our faith. Does it still move us today? Could we be accused of believing the unbelievable and of being fools for God?
As I asked myself this question, one thought kept coming to me. That is, our faith in this God is in some way, a belief in the power of "Yes." Jesus' life, death, resurrection and ascension are his lived "Yes" to God the Father. And at the same time, the very fact of Jesus' thirty-three years on earth—his human experience—is God's "Yes" to creation and especially to humankind.
The faith that Jesus is modeling for us is one of saying "Yes" to God's presence in the face of everything that denies it. Maybe that sounds too simple, but I know there are many that ways my pride or stubbornness amounts to saying "No" to God.
The little no's are things like perfectionism, pessimism, impatience, being inconsiderate or unkind, all the ways we hinder or minimize others and ourselves. Usually we are able to recognize these and then kiss and make up. But some struggles are more deep-seated. For each of us the particulars are different, but to be human means that we can get trapped into somehow holding God hostage to our fears or desires.
I saw an ad written in bold letters across the page, "SAY NO TO NO." It went on: "Isn't it high time someone got negative about negativity? Yes it is. Look around. The world is full of things that, according to nay-sayers, should never have happened. "Impossible." "Impractical." "No." And yet, "yes."'
The ad lists some of our most noteworthy achievements, and then asks what it takes to turn no into yes. "Curiosity. An open mind. Willingness to take a risk. And when everyone else is shaking their heads, to say: "Let's go!"'
Taking a risk on God means letting go, not sweating the small stuff and sometimes the big stuff. Being Catholic and croaking about it can be a risky business. Many will question or disapprove.
In some ways their questions are warranted. There are times when I struggle with what it means to be Catholic. But for me, the more important question, the one about which I can do something, is: What is the quality of my faith?
In my questioning, am I guilty of being a knee-jerk nay-sayer, or is my concern that of one who honestly cares? Do I have the humility of an insider who sees the problem, but is also grateful for all of the good? Can I show my appreciation for the many good people and their sacrifices that have made it all possible? Most of all can I give up fighting tooth and nail in the name of intellectual pride? Can I remember to look up and let God share the burden of my struggle?
Like the first Christians who proudly celebrated the resurrection and ascension of Our Lord in the midst of their hardships, we can learn to accentuate the positive. Their faith was an antidote to a troubled and disbelieving world, not so different from the world in which we live.
These followers of Jesus were undaunted in their belief that goodness and kindness were not foolish acts, but could and would change the world. They were on fire and we ought to be, too. To reach that point we don't need a faith steeped in doctrine, but a primitive faith steeped in wonder, praise and gratitude.
Like the first Christians, we are called into the ministry of this unpredictable God who does the impossible and shows us that we can, too. The scripture story wants us to pay attention, and to savor its gifts. It is large enough for our questions, and anticipates our struggles. In faith, we learn to trust that God will ultimately be the source of all healing.
We encounter many mysteries in our faith, but God's presence is not one of them. We will always find God whenever and however our hearts are touched. God's language is the language of the heart. This is also the language of scripture.
A community of croaking frogs might not be the preferred image of Christianity, but I kind of like it. It reminds me that sometimes, having faith requires me to lighten up, and not take myself so seriously. To be humble and grateful and not afraid to show it.
We could do much worse than be likened to the first Christians. Their "Yes" endures in the pages of our faith history.
The Easter story, from beginning to end, invites us into the mystery of a God who refuses to take "No" for an answer. How does faith in such a God change our lives? This is the mystery of the ascension story. It is ours to ponder, to believe, to live, and to celebrate.