Saturday, 11 May 2013

Homily for the Solemnity of the Ascenion of the Lord

The women were standing there gazing into the empty tomb. While they were perplexed about this. Suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed there faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’    
 Luke 24:4
While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’                       
Acts 1:10-11a
Where’s a person supposed to look? If not down, and not up, then where?
Forty days after the Resurrection He left them in the flesh. I wonder if they felt what we feel when a loved one moves away or dies. Alone? Abandoned? Desolate? Or did they recall His promise, one that would be fulfilled in ten days? On Pentecost He would return to them pouring out His spirit. What a moment in time, between Ascension and Pentecost, between loss and promise. He does promise that we will see Him again, as we will one day see our loved ones. But what should we do in the meantime?
The forty days between resurrection and ascension represents a serious number: fullness of time, plenty of time for the men and women who were his disciples to probe the mystery. Jewish students study with a Rabbi for forty days, a symbolic number meaning the amount of time it would take to learn the master’s teaching well enough to repeat it.
The ascension event is told in a way that is full of allusions to biblical precedents. Being lifted up before their eyes into the cloud refers to the cloud of God’s presence, which went before the people of Israel leading them through the wilderness to freedom. By being gathered into the cloud, Jesus is not so much going up as he is going ahead of his apostles into glory.
On Easter morning the women were told not to look down into the tomb; now the apostles are told not to look into the heavens. ‘beginning from Jerusalem you are witnesses,’ Jesus said. ‘I am sending upon you what my Father promised … you will be clothed with power from on high.’ The issue is not where Jesus was, or even where he is, but where he is sending them, clothed with power from on high. The direction is not down or up but out. They are no longer hearers of the word, but its heralds.
Do you remember another mountain, the mount of the transfiguration? ‘While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they {Peter, James and John} saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to Jesus. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.’
I have yet to find connections made about the transfiguration – resurrection ascension event made in any biblical commentaries, or between Moses and Elijah, the two men at the tomb, and the two men at Bethany, but I have a funny feeling that there may be such a connection.
Both Moses and Elijah know what passing the torch is all about. When Moses died and was buried (although no one could ever find his grave), Joshua took over. The staff of God, which opened the way of promise was now in his hands. Before Elijah was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire, his successor, Elisha, asked for a double share of his spirit. Clothed with Elijah’s mantle, he continued his mission mightily.
The ascension also stands as a pathway between the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the apostles. As we move through the ascension experience, Luke’s point of view changes. The issues change. We move, as it were from the story of Jesus to the story of the Church, from then to now. In the ascension story, the staff of Jesus is passed. ‘Clothed with power from on high,; clothed with his mantle, the disciples are charged with the continuation of his mission.
The gospel of Luke tells of the disciples’ journey towards faith in Jesus. The ascension, a crucial moment, reflects something new, which the Acts of the Apostles will carry forward even to our own time and beyond.
The issue in the moment is not so much our faith in Jesus as his faith in us. The issue is not our giving his resurrection a certificate of authenticity, but his decision to pour out his spirit upon struggling believers. The issue is not for us to prove that Jesus is alive but for him to prove that we are not dead. The issue is no longer his identity with God, but our identity with him.
I stumbled upon a text from Hans Urs von Balthasar about the ascension, which helps bring this together, as he always does, really penetrates deeply into the mystery. He says, “In the ascension, God’s earthly image”—that is, Jesus—“is seized and drawn up definitively to the Father, and the disciples stand, blessed and full of longing, staring after the one who has disappeared into God. The Transfigured One took their hearts with Him up to God and they will never again feel altogether at home in this temporal world. For that part of the world they most loved is now with God. And this is why everything that they see on earth becomes transparent to heaven. The Holy Spirit, which the Son sends to them from heaven, kindles in them the fire of longing in which every image on earth becomes radiant for heaven, for the everlasting life which springs up from triune love.”
Now the disciples, as it says here, stood staring after the one who disappeared into God. So the angels had to come down and wake them up and say, what are you doing, staring up into heaven? He’s going to come back the same way that He left! And so they went back to the temple and worshipped Him and praised Him with joy.
That’s what we’re doing here, too. We are gathering at the temple, worshipping and praising Christ who has ascended to heaven, and at the same time we hear that voice of the angel that says, He’s going to come back. Every time we come to church to worship, part of what we’re doing is waiting, looking for Him to come back, and worshipping Him who has gone and has promised to come back. We stand both in body and in spirit, longing for the return of the Son of Man.
Do you feel a shaky at times as you face your own life with all its ambiguities? The mystery of the ascension invites us, even in our shakiness, not so much to believe in God, but to believe that God believes in us. In other words, don’t get stuck looking down in discouragement, or looking up in bewilderment. Staff in hand, mantle around your shoulders, look out and step out with grace, longing and courage

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