Homily for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, Year C 2019
The author, Susan Howard is quoted for saying “Religion resembles a language – it can be spoken by adults and children alike, by the uneducated and the educated, by the geniuses and the morons; and like all languages, it is powered by metaphor, symbol and analogy…” Although we may all be able to speak a language, it doesn’t follow that we may all be able to understand and correctly interpret a language. This seems to be our mistake. We take literally what is said figuratively.
A good example is the misunderstanding of the text, “Jesus was taken up to heaven”. While many may want to take this text literally, it is a figurative expression. As heaven isn’t a place up there. It is in the word of Pope Benedict XVI, “A ‘place’ in God”. And since God is everywhere, Omnipresence, heaven is everywhere too. This is the Jewish sense of heaven. It is not some place out there, detached and distant from earth. Heaven is immanent, but it also transcends the earth.
This understanding of heaven as a place near us, within us and at the same time far from us, helps us to appreciate the event of the Ascension of the Lord. He ascended into heaven, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church means, “the definitive entrance of Jesus’ humanity into God’s domain”. But this entrance doesn’t in anyway suggest that there was a time when He, Jesus wasn’t in God’s domain. Rather, it is an event that is meant for us to witness His entrance.
Thus, one could say the Ascension is about us. It is about looking down on earth, staring at the faces and the world in which God has called us to make present His Kingdom. It is about “the time and the mission of the Church”. To achieve this end, Jesus urged us, “Stay in the city then, until you are clothed with the power from on high. Then He took them out as far as the outskirts of Bethany, and lifting up His hands, He blessed them”. Why would He ask them to stay in the city, and then took them out?
Again, this is a text that shouldn’t be read literally. It should be read with Luke’s paradox in mind. Luke begins his Gospel in Jerusalem, in the Temple, during the reign of Herod, king of Judea. He ends his Gospel in Jerusalem, in the Temple, but now during the reign of Christ, the King of the Universe. Now, the disciples have been very familiar with the reign of Herod. And familiarity most times gets us into routine that makes it difficult for us to appreciate change.
But Luke is interested in the change that Christ’s Kingship has made and is making. So, Luke gives us an insightful detail: “Then He took them out as far as the outskirts of Bethany”. For all we know, Bethany is nothing compared to the Holy City of Jerusalem. It has no Temple. So, what Jesus was doing according to Luke was taking the disciples out of the familiar and giving them the opportunity to appreciate what they have and who they are, to rediscover Jerusalem.
For Jerusalem will be the starting point for “the time and mission of the Church” as we heard from the First Reading, “you will be My witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to the end of the earth”. But Jesus doesn’t end there, he goes on to bless them. Blessing here may be understood as Jesus confirming them or okaying them. It is more or less Jesus saying, “I know you can be My witnesses. I trust you. Go! Be My witnesses”.
Sometimes, we too are taken out of our familiar territory: our marriages, our jobs, our families, our vocations, our friends, mention them, and we are then taken to our own outskirts, to something less than what we have or are. When we find ourselves in the outskirts, this isn’t meant to break us, but to build us. It isn’t meant to make us bitter, but to make us better. Like the disciples, let us follow the Lord. We may not understand what He is up to, but can we trust Him?
The Biblical Luke gives us another detail, “Now as He blessed them, he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven”. “This ‘withdrawal’ of Jesus”, according to Luke Timothy Johnson, “is not so much an absence as it is a presence in a new and more powerful mode: When Jesus is not among them as another specific body, he is accessible to all as Life-Giving Spirit”. It means Christ is no longer localised: limited by space and time, but He is everywhere.
But there is another sense to the ‘withdrawal’. It means Jesus, the Son stepped back, so that the Holy Spirit, might come. Bishop Robert Barron puts it this way, “When something of earth goes into the heavenly realm, something of heaven comes down into the earthly realm”. Always, there is that sense of “give and take”. And it is the same with us. When we step back, we let God act. For most times, our strength and our wilfulness stand in the way of God’s purposes and action.
Notice, it is when He stepped back that He was carried up to heaven. The point here is we don’t carry ourselves to heaven. It isn’t by our effort. However, it is not also without our effort. So, God takes the initiative, but we respond by letting Him in. This is what Kylie did. She was diagnosed with an incurable cancer. She was sad, angry and disappointed with God. But God whispered to her, “Can you let Me help you?” She stepped back and let God. She was healed.
This story brings home the Ascension of the Lord. It is realised, Christ has ascended to His Father and Our Father. We can now cling to Him. We can now experience the effect of the Ascension. He sits at the Right of the Father interceding for us. He is accessible by all. Just like Kylie, we too can ascend from our own realities to heavenly reality because He has ascended. But we still have to live in hope that where He, the Head has gone, we, His Body will follow.
Fr. Francis Afu