May 15, 2012
Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord [May 20, 2012]
I should imagine that there is hardly a soul on the planet who is not fascinated by the heavens, the skies, and outer space, whatever one may choose to name it. In some sense we are simply attracted by the unknown, yes, even the unexplored (at least until modern times).
In some sense we imagine that there must be another world out (up) there where life could exist much like it does here. Being earth-bound creatures limited by space and time, we often wonder how far “out” the outer space “world” goes. Is there any limit to its dimensions or is it simply limitless.
What makes these questions even more intriguing are the discoveries that have been made in modern astrophysics and the photos of the planets taken by the Hubble space telescope. But even the scientists who continue to make these amazing discoveries admit that they have only scratched the surface of that deep space “world.” In some sense, they, like all of us, are mystery seekers, human beings who realize that there is more that is unknown than known about the space beyond earth’s borders.
One might be bold enough to suggest, therefore, that astrophysicists may well be theologians without realizing it. They will be the first to suggest that there is something mystical, mysterious, numinous, yes even supernatural about the “heavens.” When any of us, mere mortals that we are, wishes to imagine the sacred, we do not look at the earth under our feet we look up and out simply because that must be the domain of God, the holy and Sacred One. In short, the human search, for the divine always ends up looking beyond the stars.
So, it has always been, my friends: we seem to have a natural instinct to search for the sacred. The quest goes back as far as human history will allow us to venture.
It is not unlikely, therefore, that our Jewish and Christian ancestors would speak of God’s domain as “up,” beyond anything humans can even imagine.
For Christians the question of the sphere of the divine traditionally arises on the liturgical feast of the Ascension of the Lord, the feast we celebrate toward the end of the Easter season; the very title of the feast already gives us a clue to the question we are raising. (Ascension, going up, rising into the heavens)
The context of the event is this: Jesus has now been with his disciples since his tragic death and joyous resurrection, consoling them, teaching them about the meaning of kingdom of God.
At some point during this time period (40 days in Jewish terms is always a point of conclusion) Jesus gathers the twelve together for a last conversation. At that time, he gives them some specific instructions: their task after he is gone is for them to continue preaching what he had taught them and to baptize, that is to bring people into the circle of faith in Jesus.
Having completed these instructions, Jesus (the Risen Christ) departs from them. The reading from Luke-Acts indicates that he “rose up” from their midst, ascended into the heavens.
Scripture scholars suggest that the story is a redaction (a remembrance) of the early Christian community. In their retelling of Christ’s departure (his separation from them), they could only imagine that he must have returned to the “side of the Father” the “place” from which he had come. Obviously, it could only be “up,” into the world of the sacred.
However, the central point of the story as described in Luke-Acts is not an effort to say where Jesus went. The story is actually a catechesis on the role of the Church in the world as those early Christians understood it: their future role as followers of Jesus was to be evangelists, missionaries, who would be called to continue doing what Jesus had done while in their midst. “Preach the good news of the kingdom,” Jesus told them; then “baptize them as a sign that they now belong to the Body of Christ.”
The important point in all this is to say that the story of the Ascension is really nothing more than an instruction (a Catechesis) describing the Church of Jesus Christ in its fundamental elements.
The point we must add, of course, is that the command of Jesus to the disciples to preach, catechize and baptize is also an invitation, indeed a command to every Christian down through the ages, to do what Jesus did. Otherwise, what would the word and work of Jesus mean? Not very much without working Christians.
Finally, as we mentioned at the outset, it may be fascinating for us (amateur astrophycists that we long to be) to explore and be amazed by the realm of deep space. Nonetheless, at a certain point in time we need to turn our attention from the heavenly bodies, back to the earth that is our home and to the work of Jesus...until he comes again.
Posted by Cindy Lentine on May 15, 2012 09:04 AM.