The Gospel for May 28th, 2017: Ascension Sunday
Reflection: Why is the Ascension Important?
Because I only post for the Sunday gospel, I am choosing to write about the Ascension, which may have been celebrated in some parishes last Thursday but also may be celebrated on this Sunday in others. Interestingly enough, Matthew’s gospel for this feast does not in fact mention the Ascension of Jesus to heaven at all. So how does one consider the importance of Ascension Sunday when it is not mentioned?
Despite its absence from the Matthew gospel reading (it is found in Luke), the first reading from Chapter 1 of Acts describes this further development in salvation history. The drama of the moment is curiously understated; however, what follows is rather memorable. The apostles are standing looking up at the sky when subsequently they are addressed by presumably two angels who ask, “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” (Acts 1: 11). Notice the wording. They make it clear Jesus’ departure has not changed who He is or why He came. Still, I think the angel’s question provides a useful bridge to the Matthew gospel.
To understand this connection, let me back up to lines 6 and 7 of the Ascension episode in Acts 1. Before Jesus departs, the disciples ask Him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus replies, “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.” I have heard Bishop Robert Barron cite N.T. Wright with the insight that when first century Jews heard Jesus say the kingdom of God is at hand, they would understand that as the scattered tribes of Israel would be gathered. Barron points out this was one of the tasks prophesies said the Messiah would achieve. So the apostles very likely expected Jesus to restore Israel before leaving. Their question is quite reasonable. So why didn’t He?
Because He wants us to join Him in this mission! Part of the Lord’s salvation plan is that we participate in the reuniting of God’s people—all His people. The scattered tribes of Israel are all of the beloved sons and daughters of humanity who are divided by sin. Sociology and psychology and science may give us scores of reasons by other names to explain why we ignore, fight, and separate from one another, but ultimately it is our sinful natures that respond to pride, hate, and greed and fall short of loving each other as Jesus loves us. But through God’s grace we may purge sin by participating in bringing others back to Jesus in small acts of kindness and love. He is the body that gathers us all in divine love. We accept the gift of the Holy Spirit and are joined to Christ in love. The apostles had it wrong. Israel was not a worldly Kingdom that Jesus would preside over like some ancient monarch. Israel is the fulfillment of salvation in Jesus which will be accomplished as the Holy Spirit works through Jesus’ disciples.
Listen to Jesus’ words to His disciples before leaving in the Matthew gospel: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 18-20). The joining of heaven and earth, the salvation of mankind involves us. His teaching is done, He is who He said He was, and the Kingdom is at hand in His person who is gathering all His creation.
So the angels’ question for the apostles holds true for all of us: “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” There is no more waiting for a Messiah. We have been given the keys to the kingdom: to love each other as He has loved us. What are we waiting for? We can find the peace and joy of God’s kingdom today.
Note: I referenced Bishop Barron wonderful CD, “Who Do You Say That I Am?” I highly recommend obtaining a copy for listening.