Called in Hope
The Solemnity of the Ascension. Br Albert Robertson suggests that the Ascension is more than ‘happily ever after’.
The Feast of the Ascension is both an ending and a beginning, something we get a clearer sense of this year as we hear both of Luke’s accounts of the Ascension in our First Reading and Gospel Reading. The disciples worship Jesus as Lord, his divine identity finally confirmed through his Resurrection, and his divine authority revealed as he now departs to heaven, taking his proper place at the right hand of the Father. Jesus leads his disciples out of the city towards Bethany, and the word for ‘to lead’ that is used by Luke here is often used in the Old Testament to describe the Exodus from Egypt. Here we have the completion of Christ’s new Exodus which he had been discussing with Moses and Elijah during his Transfiguration (Luke 9:31). The location of the Ascension at Bethany offers a similar sense of closure to the Gospel story, for it was at Bethany that Jesus began his triumphal entry into Jerusalem the week before his Passion (Luke 19:28-44). The beginning of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem becomes the place of his true triumphal entry, as he ascends to heaven. The disciples return to Jerusalem with great joy, where they spent their days in the Temple, blessing God, almost a classic ‘happily ever after’ ending.
But this feast is also a beginning as the disciples are given their new mission which will begin at Pentecost, the completion of the Lord’s Paschal Mystery, as he sends the Holy Spirit upon the apostles in visible form, impelling to their new task. In our First Reading from the beginning of Acts, we have the first hints of this new movement as Jesus tells the apostles that they will be his witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). The response of the angels, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’ (Acts 1:11) sounds a little like an attempt to cajole them into action: what are you doing standing around? There’s work to be done. The Ascension begins that movement from Jerusalem out to the furthest ends of the known world that we have been hearing about day after day as we read the Acts of the Apostles. If the overall structure of Luke’s Gospel was Jesus’ single-minded march towards Jerusalem, Luke’s account of the early Church is a single-minded movement out of Jerusalem to spread the Good News of the Lord’s Resurrection. This call to movement and proclamation should be at the front of our minds as we approach Pentecost, with the traditional novena prayer to the Holy Spirit which begins on the Feast of the Ascension.
Ascension does not just mark the beginning of the new story of the nascent Church, but also another new movement, the movement of the virtue of hope. Our hope of reaching our heavenly homeland is not something static, for as the Collect of today’s Mass tells us, where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope. But our following of Christ cannot mean that we are like the men of Galilee standing and looking into heaven. Instead, our hope puts us on a pilgrim journey to heaven. In his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul prays that his readers may perceive the hope to which God has called them, a hope which is beyond any expectation of this life, and which consists in a glorious inheritance among the saints (Ephesians 3:18). Today’s feast is a chance to accept Paul’s invitation to grasp this truth more deeply, asking God for his help in attaining that heavenly inheritance.
Hope, however, is not just a vague trust in the future, but is a firm conviction that the Lord’s power and mercy will bring us to that future (ST, II-II, 17, 1). It is a trust that no matter how arduous the journey, the Lord’s power is able to bring us to that heavenly inheritance. In the Letter to the Hebrews, it is precisely the fact that the Lord has entered into the heavenly sanctuary by his own sacrifice that gives us hope that we too can enter in. ‘Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful’ (Hebrews 10:23). A similar sentiment is expressed by St Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians where he wants his readers to come to a fuller knowledge of Christ’s power, a power which is ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come’ (Ephesians, 3:21). The Christian community in Ephesus could easily feel powerless in the face of a wider community which could often be a place of hostility. It is in the face of this that Paul wants to remind them of the Lord’s power, a power which subjugates all things.
This sense of the Ascension as both an ending and a beginning is found in our everyday experience of the Christian life where Christ’s headship over the cosmos is both ‘already’ and ‘not yet.’ The Lord’s Paschal Mystery has shown his Lordship over all things, and has renewed creation. As the exalted Lord, he has been given all power in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:28). Yet the Lord’s power is exercised so that his plan may unfold through the preaching of the Gospel and the building up of the Church. We now wait for that day when the Lord will return making all created things subject to his rule, and all things united under his gracious government (Ephesians 1:10). Then he will present to the immensity of the Father’s majesty, an eternal and universal kingdom, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.
Image: detail from the dome of the Duomo, Florence, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.