Thursday, 17 May 2012

 thank you to Tony and Catholica for this

Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord B
May 20, 2012

Reading 1 (in part)
When they had gathered together they asked him,
"Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"
He answered them, "It is not for you to know the times or seasons
that the Father has established by his own authority.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth."
When he had said this, as they were looking on,
he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.
While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going...
Gospel (in part)
So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them,
was taken up into heaven
and took his seat at the right hand of God.
But they went forth and preached everywhere,
while the Lord worked with them
and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.

Well, of course it's a myth: it's not space travel. Our job is to find the purpose of the myth, the 'truth' that is taught in this symbolic story of The Lord being taken up into heaven and being seated at the right hand of God, as Mark tells it. Luke (first reading) says that he was lifted up before their eyes and a cloud took him from their sight, leaving them gaping into an empty sky.
We have four elements in these accounts:
(1) Jesus was taken up or lifted up: If we discount any implication of him moving bodily through the upper atmosphere and finally to outer space, the statement simply means that he has left this earth, he has 'gone away'. John's account of the Last Supper has Jesus saying more than once that he was about to go away.
(2) A cloud took him from their sight: Not any old cloud passing through the sky, but the cloud that throughout the Bible is a symbol of God's presence. We've all had the experience of climbing a mountain only to be swallowed up in the mist. In a cloud you can see nothing; the mystery we call 'god' is beyond our knowing. And the writer is saying only that when Jesus went away he was in god.

(3) Mark adds that Jesus took his seat at the right hand of God: The reference to the vision of the prophet Daniel is found in all four gospels in different places, and therefore seems to be a lynch-pin in the self-awareness of Jesus:
I gazed into the visions of the night. And I saw, coming with the clouds of heaven, one like a son of man. He came to the one of great age and was led into his presence. On him was conferred sovereignty, glory and kingship, and [...] all people, nations and languages became his servants. His sovereignty is an eternal sovereignty which shall never pass away, nor will his empire ever be destroyed. (Dan 7:13,14. Jerusalem Bible)
(4) Finally, there is the promise of the Holy Spirit with references to the power of the spirit that animated the apostles as they went forth and preached everywhere.
In short, the ascension is the watershed of history, the moment when Jesus of Nazareth 'goes away' and the time of the spirit begins.
John explained this in the words he placed on Jesus' lips after the supper: But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (Jn 16:7)
Unless I go the Advocate will not come. Why not? This is not just a changing of the guard. There is some kind of mystery here because John puts the same idea in three or four different ways, and in the ascension narrative Luke gives us two sides of the coin: the going away of Jesus on one side and on the other side, inseparable but different, the coming of the spirit.
I can only think that this points to two quite different phases of the great mystery. Jesus lived among us and taught by word and example until they closed ranks against him and killed him. This phase has to be considered as over, finished, closed, in order for the next phase to begin. The new phase is totally different. It is the real one for which the other was only the preparation. This is the real baptism, the moment of new birth. Jesus of Nazareth lived and worked in the old order: now the old order is closed and the new order begins. The act of creation is completed by the outpouring of the spirit, the power of god is unleashed to make all things new.
Is this just theological speculation, or has it some practical dimension? The question in my mind is whether we have got our view correctly adjusted. Jesus has gone away; this is the age of the spirit.

There is a fashion among us to ask: What would Jesus do in this situation? Through the past week there has been some speculation concerning the things we don't know about Jesus of Nazareth. There's nothing wrong with wondering, provided we make sure our attention is not taken from the present situation of our lives and the challenges we face, the problems we have to resolve with the teaching of the gospel to guide us and the power of the spirit to enable us, and our own brains to do the work. Jesus will not be coming back to do it for us. In fact, I wonder is it useful to hark back to his time on earth, re-creating his life in books and films, visiting the places where he walked, looking to capture something of his aura, seeking to enhance our awareness of his days among us. The point of the 'ascension' is that all that is over. Now we are in the age of the spirit. What does this mean?
For a start, according to Jesus, it is better: "It is better for you that I go." Somehow we are better off relating to the spirit than focussing on Jesus of Nazareth, constrained by all the limitations of time and place, of language and custom that occur when we try to see him in his own setting.
The goal is spelled out in the gospels along with the attitudes that are required to achieve it. What else is needed, other than our commitment, us getting stuck into it, saying what needs to be said, doing what has to be done, risking our lives to save others, working in the spirit.
The new creation comes to life at the spirit's breath; the new covenant begins to be realised with people opening their minds and hearts to undreamed of possibilities, and daring to think, to say, and to do what is true and just.
Both selections from the letter to the Ephesians provided for the second reading are to be read as poetry, letting the images enliven the imagination and inspire the heart,

"until we all attain to the unity of faith [trust/commitment]
and knowledge of the Son of God,
to mature to manhood,
to the extent of the full stature of Christ."

There are many loose ends hanging off this memorial of the ascension. Some of them might raise a comment or two...
"Fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself."
Tony Lawless
On Ascension Thursday I found an email in my in-box from the British Jesuit magazine Thinking Faith, with an article on the ascension. It is a long article but well worth a read.
The author found understanding and inspiration through the thoughts of Ignatius of Loyola who saw the Ascension as the turning point of history precisely because in this 'event' Jesus of Nazareth was installed as King of the Universe. I'm afraid that part of the article left me cold since for me to adopt Ignatius' attitude to kings would be to substitute one myth for another.

"A post is a free gift, and it will go where it pleases."'

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