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May 12, 2013 - The Ascension of the Lord

Acts 1:1-11; Eph 1:17-23 (or Heb 9:24-28; 10:19-23); Lk 24:46-53

May 8, 2013

What does it mean?

When I was a child, I often wondered how far up Jesus had to ascend before he got to heaven. Then as an adult, I was dumbfounded when I read that one of the early astronauts made a comment about not seeing any traces up in space of the ascended Jesus. It is not that I have a clearer understanding of this mystery than I had as a child or than the astronaut seems to have had. I simply ask different questions now. I don't wonder where he went or where is he now. Instead, I wonder what it all means.

Those who have left us an account of the ascension possessed a pre-scientific concept of the structure of the cosmos, one that is quite different from ours. Today we speak of the expanding galaxies and curved space-time. The ancients believed in a three-tiered universe, with the realm of the dead literally under the world of the living and heaven literally above it all. When they spoke of Jesus returning to God and being enthroned in heaven, they envisioned this as some kind of ascension into the sky. The comment of the astronaut shows that he held two conflicting perceptions of the universe, an extraordinarily sophisticated one developed by NASA and a pre-scientific one shaped by a literal reading of the Bible.  Many of us today hold the same two worldviews, though we do not always acknowledge that they conflict. We who have been shaped by the scientific age in which we live want to know what really happened. We are not unlike the disciples who were "standing there looking up to the sky." Today's readings don't explain what happened. Instead, they throw light on what it all means.

The ascension is one aspect of the broader mystery of the resurrection. No longer is Jesus bodily present among his disciples. The church is now living in a new reality. While upcoming readings for Ordinary Time will describe this new reality, today's readings focus on Jesus' exaltation. Easter stories showed Jesus trying to assure his followers that they were really experiencing him and not some illusion. He walked with them, talked with them, and ate with them. They came to realize that the one who had died on the cross was now alive. In the readings for today we behold him in all of his divine glory, taking his place in heaven next to God.

The focus of this feast is the heavenly reign of Christ, not the details of the ascension itself. The first reading simply states that "he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight." The reading from the Letter to the Ephesians says that Jesus is at God's "right hand in the heavens." In the gospel passage we read that he "was taken up to heaven."  The challenge these readings set before us is spiritual, not scientific. They all declare that Jesus is with God, and that there he is at God's right hand, the place of honor par excellence. So, what does it mean? The reading from Ephesians offers us some insight. It states that God placed Jesus "far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion," most likely references to celestial beings. God also placed "all things beneath his feet," a metaphor of royal rule.

This all means that the ascension of Jesus is a metaphor for his exaltation by God as the victorious ruler over all. Does this mean that he did not go up to heaven? Of course not. That description was the best way people with a three-tiered concept of the universe could explain what they believed. Today, we who live with a Big Bang, String Theory understanding of the universe simply speak of it differently.

In the accounts of the ascension read today the attention of the disciples is redirected from their experience of Jesus to their own responsibilities. In the first reading, Jesus directs his disciples to be his witnesses. Their ministry will begin where they are in Jerusalem, move out from there to the surrounding area of Judea, then to neighboring Samaria, and finally to the ends of the world. They cannot afford to stand around looking up to the sky. They have work to do. The gospel passage contains a similar message. There Jesus instructs the disciples that they will be witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection "to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem."

The first disciples were faithful to these instructions. They brought the good news of salvation to the ends of the earth. We are evidence of their success. Now it is our turn. We cannot stand looking up to heaven, both astonished and frightened by Jesus' absence from our sight. We have work to do. If Jesus' message is to be brought into the world, it is now up to us to do it. He has been exalted by God, and we must now be his witnesses "to the ends of the world."

Dianne Bergant, C.S.A.

Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies

This reflection first appeared in America magazine and can now be found in The Word for Every Season: Reflections on the Lectionary Readings (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2010).

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