Ascension Sunday
May 20, 2007

Readings: Acts 1:-11 / Eph 1:17-23 / Lk 24:46-53

This day is definitely a day of seeming contrasts. Jesus bids good-bye to his disciples. Good-byes are, in our human experience, generally sad events. But not so Jesus’ leave-taking. The ebullient joy that characterizes this day is captured for posterity by our response after the first reading: “God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord.” Make no mistake about it. This is a joyful departure. It sounds almost like we are happy because the Risen Lord has taken leave of us.

But hold it a second … did he or didn’t he? Let us see more of such apparent contrasts.

The first reading gives us one more to consider. The Apostles, we are told “were looking on [as] he was lifted up” (Acts 1). They were awed. They were caught up in the loftiness of the mystery unfolding. They worshipped and adored the Risen Lord. But hold on a second … Just before being taken up, the Risen Lord told them: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We are further told by Luke’s account in Acts, that as they looked up, two angels challenged them: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

We see immediate parallels of this reality in our lives. It does not do us much good to be staying on and worshipping unless this basically good deed rises higher to become witnessing. Worship and witness … the initial contrast between the two collapses upon deeper reflection.

But here’s one more such seeming contrast … “shouts of joy” are matched only by the “blare of trumpets.” There is an ascending character even in the apostles’ response to the Lord’s rising and ascending up to heaven. Praising the Lord of victories is good and laudable. But something else that transcends mere praising is in order. Shouting for joy alone does not do justice to one’s personal experience of the Risen Lord. Praising ought to rise to the level of proclamation. And proclamation has to come from one who has been gifted with “a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him” (2nd Reading). Proclamation comes when “the eyes of [our] hearts are enlightened,” [and when we] “know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe.”

All elements we have mentioned – joy, worship, witness, praise, and proclamation – are rolled up together in the Lukan gospel account. Jesus reminded his disciples: “You are witnesses of these things.” Luke tells us that the disciples who saw him rise up to the heaven “did him homage.” They also “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” And they “were continually in the temple praising God.”

This is one story of “good-bye” that constitutes one heck of a celebration – and a joyful one at that. This leads us to our simplistic sounding question at the beginning of this reflection. Did he or didn’t he?

Yes, he did. It stands as a historical fact of the inspired New Testament that he “was taken up to heaven.” But his departure for a time, really meant he is present in a different, transformed way. His ascension to heaven, at bottom, is also what is behind the rising transformation of people who initially felt the need to resort to worshipping, but who eventually understood that they were really called to witnessing. The same people initially engaged in praising the Risen Lord, but the rest of the New Testament story speaks of them proclaiming the saving wonders of a God who is really present in their midst in a new and more encompassing way.

Yes. Ascension is all about going and coming, with the focus on the latter. The Lord went away for a time, in a physical sense, but this going away translated into his coming, and being present for all time, in a new way, in a way that did not limit him to a tiny geographical area of Galilee and Jerusalem, but in order to make real the promise of a “new heaven and a new earth.”

Ascension is all about presence. Ascension is all about power, too – the power attached to praising and proclaiming, to worshipping and witnessing, in a way that transcends mere rejoicing to exulting in the Lord who is our strength.

And this leads us to think about our own need to transcend. Far too many of us profess to have faith in the Risen Lord. But our God is a God who “has pitched his tent in our midst.” This is the literal meaning of the Johannine phrase “et habitavit in nobis” (and he dwelt amongst us). Our God is present in our midst. He lives with us, and journeys with us. He is, according to philosophers, both a transcendent and immanent God. There is no question about his being present to us for all time, for all places, in all ways and for always. But we do need to check on where we are in all this. Are we in his tent (or at least near it) or outside of it, or far from it? Alas, too many claim they believe in God. But they really do not belong. They remain outsiders, not insiders. They keep God always conveniently at arms’ length, so that their praising need not graduate to proclaiming, so that their worshipping need not move on to witnessing.

In the context where I am, and in many other places in the whole Christian world, there is need for all to make a rapprochement between faith and life, between praise and proclamation, between worship and witness, between believing and belonging. Honduras, for example, is really like the Philippines. Both are predominantly Catholic (or Christian). But both are mired in corruption, crime, and violence, whether drug-related or politically motivated. Highly ritualized and highly sacramentalized, their eyes remain fixed on the sky, but their concrete life never get around to really live what they believe.

Ascension is not only about staring up into the sky, like the angels told the apostles. It is all about going down to the plains, and getting down to brass tacks. It is all about us being extensions of a Risen Lord who has gone away for a time, so as to be present for all time. It is all about making good what we asked for in faith in today’s Mass: “Father, in this Eucharist we touch the divine life you give to the world. Help us to follow Christ with love to eternal life where he is Lord forever and ever” (Postcommunion Prayer). It has to do with being engaged, not being detached and disengaged … “May we follow him into the new creation, for his ascension is our glory and our hope” (Opening Prayer).

Paranaque City, May 14, 2007 11:00 AM