Why Stand Looking into Heaven?
The Ascension of the Lord. fr Lawrence asks in what sense we should look for the coming of the Lord.
A man in white, the astronaut Yuri Gagarin, reportedly said: “I went up to space, but I didn’t encounter God”. But had he listened to the two men in white who spoke to the men of Galilee, he could have saved himself the trouble of seeking God up in space. “Why do you stand looking [up] into heaven?” (Acts 1:11). As another man in white said forty days earlier on Easter morning, “he is not here” (Mk 16:6). For neither down in the grave nor up in the skies will we find our God. Where, then, is Jesus? How might Man encounter God?
St Luke says that Jesus was taken “out of [the apostles’] sight” (Acts 1:9), and yet at the same time they are told to be Christ’s “witnesses… to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). This seems rather paradoxical since the ordinary sense of witnessing means to see something or someone; it is through our senses that we ordinarily gain a witness’s knowledge. But Christ is taken from their sight, so he cannot be seen. The clouds veil him, and so, Jesus is said to be beyond the perceptivity of our senses. But this does not mean that God is thus absent or unknowable or even non-existent, as Gagarin erroneously supposed. After all, St Mark says that even after his Ascension “the Lord worked with [the apostles] and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it” (Mk 16:20). So, Christ is present and active and he can be known through signs; from these effects we can witness the Cause.
The Sign par excellence by which Christ remains present and active among us, working with his disciples, is the Eucharist. The men in white promise the apostles that Christ “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11), and we tend to think this is a reference to Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. But we need not jump to that conclusion. For just as Christ went invisibly, taken from the apostles’ sight, so he comes to us invisibly. He comes and is present and active among us through the gift of sanctifying grace, through the sacraments, and above all, through the Eucharist. As St Thomas says, “in this sacrament Christ shows us his flesh in an invisible manner”. Therefore, Ratzinger says, “every Eucharist is Parousia, the Lord’s coming” and “the Liturgy is Parousia, a Parousia-like event taking place in our midst”. For through the sacred Liturgy we encounter God, and he makes us “sharers in his divinity” (cf Preface of the Ascension).”
But, how is it that so many can go to liturgies and see the Eucharist, and still say, like Gagarin, “I didn’t encounter God”? Pope Francis speaks of how we all need, every day, at least an “openness to letting [Christ] encounter [us]”: it is the openness that comes through humble faith. Hence St Mark stresses that divine signs will “accompany those who believe” (16:17), for faith is the primary mode by which we can know and encounter God. So St Thomas points out that Man needs faith to “supply for the failure of the senses” to perceive God’s real presence among us. We Christians, therefore, “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7) St Paul says. For although Christ has been taken from our sight we can still come to know and love him, to believe his word, and to experience his living presence in the Liturgy and in the world through faith. Thus Jesus says to his apostles: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you [so that] you shall be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). So, especially in this period before Pentecost, let us pray as the apostles did: “Increase our faith!” (Lk 17:5). For it is the Holy Spirit who infuses in each of us the virtues necessary for us to be Christ’s witnesses, beginning with the theological virtue of faith.
A genuine encounter with God in the Liturgy, and his coming to us through sanctifying grace, thus gives rise to what Pope Benedict XVI called “Eucharistic consistency”. The Sign gives rise to signs that the Lord is working with his disciples, alive in his Church. So, as Pope Francis reminded us, “Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead”. In these various visible ways, Christ’s disciples become witnesses, tangibly banishing the demons of our world, confronting deadly things, and bringing healing and new life (cf Mk 16:17f). All who witness these signs can thus know that God is here – neither up, nor down, but here; the “tabernacle of God is among men” (Rev 21:3).
Readings: Acts 1:1-11|Eph 4:1-13|Mark 16:15-20