Today’s First reading from the Acts of the Apostles states: As he said this he was lifted up while they looked on, and a cloud took him from their sight. They were still staring into the sky when suddenly two men in white were standing near them and they said, ‘Why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky? Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, this same Jesus will come back in the same way as you have seen him go there.’
It is not too selfish to consider the Ascension as impacting on us directly. When we read the Gospel, it isn’t unusual for us to follow the disciples and look up into the sky to where Jesus has gone, into that sometimes characterless and seemingly empty void. It is in this shadowland that we excel in our faith and sometimes fall. Here is where we doubt and believe, where we sense the presence of God and feel utterly alone.
For sure, what the disciples saw certainly merited their looking into the sky. And the disciples had an extraordinary opportunity to develop a real relationship with Christ the human, Christ in bodily, human form. His leaving them would have been at once fantastical, awesome, affirming and heartbreaking. And so, the two figures dressed in white asked: why do you stand there looking into the sky?
They do so because they want to be with him. They want to follow Jesus. The disciples, whose feet were firmly on the ground and who saw Jesus disappear before their eyes, must have felt all those conflicting emotions that we can feel in our relationship with Christ, yet so much more powerfully. What were they to do now, what was their next move, how would their relationship with Christ develop?
The words in the first reading remind us that our relationship with God does not depend on how we feel or what we see. It’s gauge is not the level of mystical summits we are capable of, nor is it the original gauge of St Thomas who could not believe what he did not see. So that we might become part of the Ascension, there has to come a shift in our perception of relationship. We must accept that that blank sky we look into – our landscape of faith – is so full of Christ’s love for us yet we can hardly grasp the hem of this love. All is not as it seems. Caught up in this Ascension landscape is our own rising into Christ’s love, our invitation from Christ to enter where he has gone. It is just that, when we look into the sky, we cannot see this.
Held in this invitation is the truth of Christ’s closeness to us. Instead of closing down and just looking into the sky and waiting, we take that courageous step to allow Jesus into our lives in all we do. The love of Christ should disrupt our lives to the point that we live for him in all things.
Mysteriously, the dynamism of this personal relationship between us and Christ unfolds through the many human relationships all around us. We are asked to throw open the doors of prayer, so that our relationship with him is not exclusive, not self-indulgent, not selfish. Jesus challenges us to find the Ascension in those we meet. Unsettlingly, this includes perhaps especially those we do not like. To see the face of the ascended Christ in those who annoy us, who rub us up the wrong way, is to act as citizens of heaven before we even get there, and is infinitely more important than how we might or might not feel in prayer.
A reading from the Gospel according to Matthew (28:16-20)
The eleven disciples set out for Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had arranged to meet them. When they saw him they fell down before him, though some hesitated. Jesus came up and spoke to them. He said,
‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations;
baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you.
‘And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.’
The Gospel of the Lord.