Sunday Reflection - The Ascension
The Scriptures tell us that Jesus spent the 40 days between His resurrection and His ascension into Heaven moving in and out of the lives of His disciples. He had many things to teach His disciples in a short period of time. He had to help them try to understand – or at least accept – that He was indeed the Son of God the Father – that His betrayal and death were not a sign of weakness but had been foretold in the Scriptures – and that the disciples were to carry on His mission of bringing God’s love to all people and they were to extend this mission to all the peoples of the world not just to those who fell under the Jewish Covenant. How much of this they understood is not clear. Even the Scriptures say that some of those who were present for His ascension did not yet believe.
After Jesus ascended into heaven the Christian Community struggled to understand what He had taught them in those 40 days. For 300 years they wrestled with the idea that Jesus was the Son of God, but that there were not two gods. It took another 150 years to work out that Jesus was fully God and fully Man and not just one person appearing under two guises. And Jesus’ teaching that they must bring the truth that God loves all people, and not just the circumcised, took even longer.
During the first 200 years after the Ascension the struggle between the Jews who had become Christians and the Gentiles who were never part of the Jewish tradition was often very hostile. Jesus had never said that anyone who wanted to follow Him had to become a Jew first. The Holy Spirit had to play a very active part in the early Christian history to show the Community that the gentiles who accepted the teachings of Jesus received the same gifts of the Holy Spirit as had the Jewish Christians on Pentecost.
The teaching that God loves all peoples was never entirely lost in Christian history, but it has not always come to the fore. However in the 16th and 19th centuries there were great missionary movements leaving from Europe and the United States and spreading all over the world. They baptised thousands of people and helped them set themselves up in western-style Christian Communities.
But since Vatican II a new and different attitude has entered the Church. Missionaries no longer talk about bringing God to other peoples but about discovering the God who has been present to all peoples even before the missionary arrives. And so today missionaries go out as learners, seeking to discover how God has been present in the lives of the peoples. And when they have done that they can celebrate together the love that God has for all peoples. In this way we are sent to teach all people how God loves us and is with us.
Ascension is also a Feast that gives all Christians hope for our future. This was brought
home to me to me by a lovely nun. I had been her spiritual director since she entered the convent. She was looking forward to a mission assignment as a nurse in Ghana when in her last year of training she developed “galloping multiple sclerosis”. As a nurse she knew what that meant – by 30 she would be walking with sticks, by 40 she would be confined to bed, and by 45 she would be dead. I visited her a week before she died. She said to me: Larry, do you know what is the first thing I am going to do when I get to heaven? I said: No, Chris, what are you going to do? She said: I am going to run (she had been a superb athlete). She reminded me that we will be in heaven with body and soul. This is what the Ascension teaches us. We have no idea what form our body will take, but we will have a body. And so every feast of the Ascension I am reminded that she is still probably running and it gives me hope for my future.