Loss is part of the human condition, and the physical death of a loved one is among the most painful experiences of loss. Today’s Feast of the Ascension invites us to face the experience of loss in a transformative way. In Ordinary Time, we celebrate the life and ministry of Jesus. Over the period of Lent and Easter, we have been re-membering his death and resurrection. As we approach the end of the Easter season, the liturgy draws us into another aspect of the Mystery, that of the presence and absence of Jesus who has been raised.
The Lukan Ascension stories as found in the gospel and in today’s first reading (Acts 1:1-11) presuppose a pre-scientific, three-tiered understanding of the structure of the world. In this ancient view, God is in the heavens above and the prophet Jesus, like the prophet Elijah of old, is caught up into God’s realm from whence the Holy Spirit will “descend” upon God’s people. This vertical (up and down) movement is balanced by a horizontal movement.
In Acts, Jesus’ family and friends who grieve the loss of their loved one are told not to keep looking up to the heavens. They have work to do: they must return to Jerusalem for the present and be empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue the prophetic ministry of Jesus (“clothed with power from on high”), to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. They have to face the fact that the physical loss of Jesus means a new and different sort of presence and that they have a role to play in making him present in their world. Like us, the early Christians needed time to grasp each dimension of the one great mystery of God’s presence among them.
In the gospel account, the disciples gathered in Jerusalem are to be witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus. They are to proclaim a gospel of “repentance and forgiveness”. In the gospel (Luke 24:47) their audience is “all peoples”, while in Acts 1:8, they are commissioned to be witnesses to Jesus “in all Jerusalem, in Judaea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. In other words, the good news is not only for the earth’s human inhabitants but for the earth itself. Pope Francis, in calling us to be attentive to the cry of the poor, insists that the earth itself is “among the most maltreated and abandoned of our poor” (Laudato Si’ 2).
Joy, peace, prayer and blessing have the final word in Luke’s gospel. They have permeated Luke’s story from the outset. As we prepare for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we might pray that the spirit of joy that animated the earliest Christians might fill our hearts so that the entire planetary community might know the blessing of God.