Acts 1:1-11; Hebrews 9:24-28, 10:19-23; Luke 24:46-53
St. Luke gives us two accounts of the Ascension: one at the end of his Gospel, and one at the beginning of Acts. The account of the Ascension in Acts parallels rather closely St. Luke’s account of Easter Morning at the empty tomb. That is: in both of these accounts, Angelic messengers speak to disciples who are looking for Jesus, and not finding him. Or at least, they are unable to see him, or to understand what has happened to him. On each occasion Luke describes these messengers simply as “two men”; though their heavenly origin is betrayed by their clothes. On each occasion the heavenly message begins with a question, which sounds a bit like a rebuke, although it’s so laden with joy that we could almost read it as a joke.
At the empty tomb on Easter morning, according to St. Luke, the Angels speak to women who have come at dawn with spices to anoint the body of Jesus. Why look among the dead for one who is alive? they say. He is not here, he is risen. At the Mount of Olives they say to the Disciples: Why are you men of Galilee standing gazing into the sky? Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come again, just as you saw him going into heaven.
St. Luke’s alternative account of the Ascension at the end of his Gospel is briefer. But there he makes clear that this mystery is as full of wonderful joy as that of the Resurrection. Not un-typically, Luke collapses the chronology here a bit, silently skipping the nine days between the Ascension and Pentecost. After Jesus is carried up to heaven, Luke tells us: They worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy; and they were continually in the Temple praising God. We know from Acts that that only happened after Pentecost. Still, we get Luke’s point. The result of Christ’s Ascension for the Disciples was joy, and also continuous public praise of God in the Temple.
Let me try to read between St. Luke’s lines a bit, in order to highlight the impact of his few words, so full of meaning, yet also deliberately under-stated.
The Angels ask their question, both at the tomb and on the hill, because they need to jerk their hearers out of their current mind-set. The news they have to relate is not just a bit joyful, but infinitely joyful: far better than anything anyone would have imagined. It’s not just wonderful news for this little group of disciples who loved Jesus, and erroneously think they have lost him. Through them, it’s to be proclaimed as wonderful news for the whole human race, until the end of time.
At the Resurrection the Angels mean to say: You won’t find Jesus in a tomb, because he has left it, and is now alive forever. And He has not just somehow escaped death: he has conquered it. He has won the definitive victory, according to God’s fore-ordained plan. He has made all things new. Alleluia! Then at the Ascension they mean to say: You won’t see Jesus up there in the sky. The forty days are over. His post resurrection appearances to you have come to an end. Jesus is now definitively enthroned in his glorified humanity at God’s right hand. Now the way to heaven is open for you. You have to prepare for that by knowing Jesus no longer according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. His going away now is indeed the immediate preparation for the descent of the Holy Spirit in power in nine days’ time. Henceforth he will be with you as never before.
Understand that Jesus is with you in his presence and power as God. He is with you also through the grace of the Holy Spirit. And he is with you too in his Word, which will abide forever, and in the Sacraments, which you must celebrate until he comes again in glory. Then at the end of time he will claim his own for his Kingdom in power and glory, for he is Lord for ever and ever, and his words can never fail, and all his loving purposes will be most marvellously accomplished, for your own infinite good and God’s everlasting glory. Alleluia!
To apply all this to ourselves. We may well with the disciples encounter today’s feast in the first place as a gentle rebuke. It invites us, as if with a laugh and a dance, to leave behind our worldly mind-set, so easily focussed in the wrong place: earth-bound; narrow; blind to the blazing light God is pouring out over us all the time. Today’s feast reminds us that we have no need to strain our eyes looking for Jesus. He is always present to us: we are the ones who absent ourselves from Him. We have no need either to dwell with nostalgia on a lost past. No: the future will be far better than anything that has happened so far. Nor have we any need to regret our current situation. God’s Providence has given it to us as our way of preparing ourselves for heaven.
This Year our Second reading at Mass is from Hebrews, which is very much focussed throughout on the Ascension of Christ into heaven. According to Hebrews, Christ is our Mediator, our Leader, our Saviour, our Priest who has gone before us into heaven. He has gone there by right of inheritance and also of conquest, and he has passed on that right to those who belong to him. Of course we are all separated from God and from heaven by our sins and our mortality. But Christ has washed away our sins in his blood. So with him we can enter the true Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the heavenly Temple, which is God’s immediate presence, passing through the separating curtain by means of Christ’s Body sacrificed for us.
Our Hebrews reading ends with a perfect message for us today. Let us keep firm in the hope which we profess, it says. Yes, the Ascension is supremely a feast of hope. It sets us joyfully and unerringly in the direction in which our lives are going, or should be going. Today we somehow glimpse our goal - heaven, eternal life, Jesus, God’s presence, ceaseless worship in joy and thanksgiving without end - already now we see it, we know it, and especially today we renew our confidence in it.
The author of Hebrews continues: We have a promise, and the one who made the promise is faithful. So do not doubt him: that would be an impiety, impugning either his fidelity or his power. And never lower your gaze back into mere worldly mediocrity. Never that! We are called to great exaltation in heaven! So let us never be content with anything less! Let us long for it ever more ardently, pray for its coming ever more fervently, and let us live now in such a way as to be worthy, at last, of receiving it.