(A reflection in place of the Seventh Sunday of Easter)
On Thursday we had the feast of the Ascension of the Lord into Heaven. This is a feast filled with a theme that has been central to our reflections during Eastertide: encouragement. All feasts are intended to encourage our faith and raise our spirits. The Ascension of the Lord is given to assure and inspire us. The prospect of sharing the Lord’s glory and taking others with us should be the central aim of our lives. The Ascension of the Lord is the great cheer you up celebration. Let us reflect a little on it.
The Ascension of the Lord took place forty days after the resurrection. During those forty days Jesus made every effort to prove to His disciples He had in fact risen from the dead, He then gave them the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Jesus wanted His Church to be in no doubt about the central fact of the Christian faith: Jesus is eternally alive and sin and death have been defeated. Everything for the Christian flows from and goes back to the Paschal Mystery of the Lord’s death, resurrection and sending of the Spirit. Our faith, our sacraments and our eternal future hinge on the Easter event. What does the Ascension tell us? Here are some points.
Indiscriminate Inclusion: In the Ascension, Jesus asks His disciples to meet Him in Galilee. Why not Jerusalem? What finer or more important place to initiate the work of the Church than the capital of Israel, the Holy City of God? No, it had to be Galilee. Why? Because Galilee was the local crossroads of humanity. It was a polyglot area filled with all kinds of people. Society was mixed, many were transient of various backgrounds; with traders and nationalities passing through all the time, often with little in common or any sense of connection with each other. For Jesus, Galilee gave the disciples maximum opportunity to get the Good News to as many people as quickly as possible, to reach them and catch their fleeting attention. To reach through their preoccupation and offer them faith. A challenge we all face. The Ascension reminds us of the indiscriminate love of God for everyone. He dies on the cross for every human life past, present and future. By sending His friends to Galilee Jesus is making the statement of the all-embracing scope of the Kingdom of God. The Church is not a self-interest or pressure group or a mere association of like-minded people. We are the Body of Christ, immensely blessed, responsible for the dissemination of God’s love with a passion for every person who we must indiscriminately serve and seek to guide to Heaven. We are mission mandated by Jesus. There is room for all in the Father’s house and the Church exists to invite people to enter the Divine Heart and remain. As followers of the Lord we must check ourselves every now and then to make sure we are truly indiscriminate with the sharing of God’s love. We must pat our spiritual pockets to see that there is no trace of prejudice or distinction in us. People must not have to pass through the filter of our personal preferences. We must always look for what we have in common with people and start to build, not focusing on our differences. I do not like the term: ‘charity begins at home’ because it seems to justify care for a defined group who are more worthy of our concern than others who may struggle to qualify. It can exclude with a clear conscience. Family is a wide inclusive term for us. Matthew Chapter 25 gives us the final judgement when Jesus identifies Himself with anyone in need and when we did it to these we did it to Him. We would never dream of saying “No” to Jesus in Person, so we must not say “No” to Jesus in the persons we meet on the path of life whoever they are. ‘Catholic’ means universal. This is God’s nature – it should be ours.
Victorious: The Ascension marks the total success of Jesus. He came from the Father to redeem the world. He succeeded in saving all through His death on the Cross. In the Ascension, Jesus returns in triumph to His Father. There were anxious times for the disciples when Jesus predicted His Passion and death, when He was taken and put on trial and when He was crucified. Post resurrection we remember the disciples on the road to Emmaus, thoroughly despondent. The Ascension does not hide the difficulties but points to the inevitability of grace succeeding in all of us. Jesus went through many ups and downs, yet He triumphed. Against the odds, Jesus came though. We need to hear this, that grace will triumph in each one of us. Whatever the ups and downs, successes and failures, God will bring us though to eternal life with Him. The Ascension is a feast which seeks to give us a sense of proportion. We have our issues and concerns but these must be kept in perspective and seen against the background of God’s total victory over all that can hurt, diminish, sadden or separate us. We must be stubborn optimists for whom God’s reality is ever present for we are never alone and should never be afraid and will never be overwhelmed. I like St. Mark’s account of the Ascension. He adds that Jesus sent the Eleven out ‘working with them confirming the word by the signs that accompanied it’. We are never alone, Jesus is with us every moment of every day, to the end of the age, in every word we speak for Him, in every kindness we show and in every event of our lives. True solidarity. We go through life together with Jesus, what happen to us happens to Him within us. Jesus’ promise to be with us through it all is our great assurance. How can we fail?
Authority: Jesus told His disciples: “All authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to me”. This is vital. There can be no room for uncertainty in the hearts of Jesus’s followers. The absolute authority of Jesus is total for it has been given to Him by His Father. Jesus returns to Heaven to sit on the Father’s right hand, the place of supreme authority. My Mother, God rest her, used to tell us that the authority of God was reassuring to her because it meant that God had the final say in our lives. The ultimate authority is with the One Who decides our eternal future, the God Who is LOVE. Mom was happy with that. Authority is also important for other reasons. I think especially of the holy sacraments of the Church. These seven powerful encounters of life transforming grace are central to our lives as Catholics. Nothing is more important. When we were baptised, we were adopted into the life of God. When we are absolved of our sins, they are gone and the grace to strive to be good and holy is given. When we go to Mass, bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus. When a person is ordained as a priest, he truly represents Jesus the Good Shepherd to feed and care for His flock. Where would we be if there was room for doubt? Am I really permanently part of God’s life now? Am I truly forgiven? Is that bread and wine really Jesus? Is the priest really a channel of God’s Spirit? Further, is there really a Heaven? The Church can state all this is true, we have it on God’s authority given by Jesus to His Church at the Ascension.
Mission: We are told in the account of the Ascension given in the acts of the Apostles that when Jesus ascended, the disciples were looking into the sky. An Angel appears and tells them to get busy about spreading the Kingdom of God. The disciples are now ambassadors for the Lord to represent Him and be Good News. There is a sense of imperative in this feast. “Go and baptise…” The Ascension is the culmination of the Lord’s ministry on earth, it is not the conclusion. There is work to be done. The Ascension lights a fire under all of us to go and ignite others. We are proactive not reactive. ‘No time like the present’ seems to be the theme. The disciples are called to take the initiative to go out and make disciples of the nations. To get up close and personal with people and through love, concern and good example flag up God’s love for them. Each of us must feel personally called, empowered and sent in mission. It must not be left to someone else. Christians should be opportunists. This requires us to be sensitive and discerning. We must be quick to spot the opening of the window of opportunity to be another Christ to someone. St. John Paul II had the gift that everyone he spoke to were given the impression he was utterly focused on them which made them feel very special. This is a gift we must cultivate. No one must feel an interruption in your life. No one is a mere tick box. It is a gift to make people feel acknowledged, we just have to let Jesus radiate His love through us and the other person will be enhanced. There is a children’s hymn: This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine’. If we can go through our day with uplifted heart, uncrushable optimism, hope and joy, we will have served the Lord well, even if we meet no one.
I have emphasised the aspect of reassurance in the last few weekly reflections, the Gospel of this feast contains one line that I am so grateful the evangelist included: ‘When they saw him they fell down before him though some hesitated’. Can you imagine? The disciples that have been with him for some time, heard all His wonderful words, saw His miracles, had personal tuition from the Saviour of the world, and still some weren’t sure! Well, there is hope for us all. We have not had the advantages of these disciples. You would think they would be fully committed and supremely confident, but some are not. Comforting. Sometimes we feel out of our depth, uncertain, even floundering in the face of life. Can we not take strength from the fact that Jesus saw His friends doubts and still entrusted the future of His mission, the promulgation of His universal love and care of souls to them?
A couple of stories to finish: A young man was born in poverty but his neighbours who, equally poor, seeing he was bright, pooled their meagre resources to send him to school and he gained a scholarship and became a doctor. Instead of going to the one of the big towns, he returned to his poor neighbours caring for them without charge happy to repay their generosity to him. He did accept their food and practical gratitude. He lived simply with a bedroom and his office together over a little store. On the steps that led to his rooms was a sign which read: ‘Dr. Carpenter is upstairs’. After many years of selfless service, the good doctor died. His people couldn’t think of adequate words to express their gratitude to the doctor to put on his grave memorial. A child removed the sign from the steps and offered it to the adults and to this day, the grave is simply marked: ‘Dr. Carpenter is upstairs’.
I read of a baby specialist who was going around his neo-natal unit examining the babies. He came to one little mite who wasn’t doing very well. He wrote in the baby’s notes ‘this baby is to be picked up and held four times every day’. The wise doctor knew the child’s flourishing wasn’t dependent on medicine alone. The baby needed human contact and love, just to be taken up in someone’s arms. I’m sure Dr. Carpenter would have concurred. Where Jesus has gone in this joyful feast of His Ascension into Heaven, one day, through God’s mercy, we will also go, lifted up in the loving arms of the Good shepherd. Now, that’s a prospect worth sharing.