A Sermon on the Feast of the Ascension
I’ve always found the Feast of the Ascension, the liturgical day we mark Jesus’ rising up to heaven, as a difficult day to get excited about.
Throughout advent, we waited in solidarity with the oppressed people of Israel to witness the birth of the Messiah, the birth of hope at Christmas.
Throughout Lent, we waited in solidarity with the crucified people of our world as Jesus conquers torture and death on the cross, and turns it into new life at Easter.
And now, after all that waiting, after all the drama of the events at Christmas and at Easter, Jesus explains he has to leave, and we have to keep on waiting.
His disciples are rightly disturbed by this news.
They ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
They had up to this point assumed that it was. The time when God would make justice flow like a mighty river. The time when God would right all the wrongs of a broken world.
Instead Jesus says, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And with that, Jesus ascends into heaven. Leaving the disciples alone, again. Leaving us waiting.
I have to admit, when I read these words, I cannot help but feel a little bit disappointed, and maybe even, a little bit betrayed.
Isn’t there enough work for Jesus to do here on earth, enough healing of the sick, enough bringing peace to the nations, to keep him occupied?
We live in a world where 30,000 children die every day from hunger, in a world where we grow more food then we have ever grown before.
Isn’t that the kind of thing Jesus could fix for us—balance out for us—if he were still here?
What would it look like if Jesus were still here, walking around with us today? How would we be different?
As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams suggests, perhaps we’d be exactly the same. He writes,
We are always liable to hang on to what we can see and understand so as to make ourselves feel safe; when Jesus is simply ‘there’ like the other things we find in the world, part of the furniture, there’s a big risk that we can make him too familiar. We domesticate him and we lose the possibility of being shocked and surprised by him.
Were Jesus to still be around us, Williams argues, instead of finding ourselves challenged and transformed through his physical presence, we might find ourselves stifled, and slack.
Instead of liberating us to live freer lives, the security of Jesus’ physical presence could lead to our own domestication, and enslavement.
And so, Jesus ascends into heaven. Only he doesn’t do so empty-handed, and he doesn’t leave us by ourselves.
He ascends with our excuses, and he leaves us with a task, and a promise.
The excuses that we have all at one time or another taken for our reality—that we don’t have enough: enough strength, enough power, enough say in our world to make a difference—these excuses are gone.
Jesus’ ascension teaches us that we are the ones we have been waiting for, that the task of transforming the world is ours, and that God has promised to empower us through the Holy Spirit to complete this task.
You are God’s witnesses.
Jesus has made you his physical presence in this world.
You may never feel strong enough, articulate enough, intelligent enough, powerful enough, spiritual enough, righteous enough, loving enough, forgiving enough, pure enough.
You may never feel good enough.
But you must begin before you are ready.*
For it is only in beginning that we open ourselves to the power and to the promise of the Holy Spirit.
This task and this promise belong to you.
You are God’s witnesses.
“So why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?
The one you are waiting for is you.
Jeffrey Metcalfe is the Incumbent of the Parish of the Magdalen Islands in the Diocese of Quebec. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.
*Thanks to Canadian theologian and activist Mary Jo Leddy for this insight.