In celebrating the Ascension of the Lord we prepare for the coming of the Holy Spirit: liturgically we are getting ready for Pentecost next week. However, we might also ask how we prepare our hearts on a daily basis to receive the presence of Jesus. Reflecting on the significance of the Ascension may serve to clarify things for us. In addition, today’s celebration also offers us a time to reflect on the promises we have been given. We reflect on the promise that Jesus will be with us always.
Jesus tells his disciples, “In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit…you will receive power…and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.” The Book of Acts tells us that when he had said this he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. They stood looking up and, in a way that has always left me with a sense of having experienced something ethereal or angelic, two men dressed in white appear and tell them, “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
From a theological point of view Ascension has practically everything to do with Jesus taking his place in heaven at the right hand of God the Father. It is a high theology that reveals a triumphant entry into heaven—contrasted with the events following the entry into Jerusalem before the Lord’s passion—in which the king takes his rightful throne and assumes his great power. Surely this is part of the foundational Christian theology laid out for us in our reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In Ascension we glimpse the dynamic movement and reciprocity within the Trinitarian godhead. Jesus returns to the Father, assumes his throne, then the Holy Spirit proceeds forth from heaven unto all the peoples of the earth.
However, without taking away in any sense from the splendor of the image of the heavenly Christ, Jesus’ ascension also takes place so that our focus may be on the things that occur here on earth and in our lives. Following the ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes to earth, to us, and writes the law of God on our hearts.
This week, midweek, Jewish people around the world celebrate Shavuot. I feel that it’s worth mentioning because we should understand what we share in common. Shavuot is the Jewish holiday that corresponds to Pentecost. It occurs 50 days past the celebration of Passover and commemorates the giving of the Law of God on Sinai to Moses. While Shavuot is as different from Pentecost as Passover is from Easter, there is still a connection. When the disciples gathered in the upper room to celebrate Pentecost, it was Shavuot that they were observing.
Beyond the obvious analogy of Moses going up the mountain of God and returning with the law, our Catholic feasts of Ascension and Pentecost force us to ask how open are we to receiving the presence of God in our lives and to the law being inscribed within our hearts and lived out in our daily lives. We might consider how present Jesus is to us really. After all, he promised us that he would send us an advocate and a comfort. He even said that he would come to us himself.
Recently my wife shared a little poem with me called “If Jesus Came to Your House to Stay”. I won’t read it here but the gist had to do with whether we would let Jesus in or whether he might need to wait outside while we tidied up, vacuumed the floor, changed the television channel, put away certain magazines and replaced them with the bible. A good question to consider is how we would react if Jesus rang the doorbell.
Years ago I heard a Catholic priest speak on the topic of the Ascension. For him the promise of the return, which Jesus makes in the Acts reading today, was one and the same as the promise of the Second Coming. However, the priest made it clear that the Second Coming was not to be the only coming of Jesus. Indeed any time that we invite the presence of the Holy Spirit we also make room for Jesus, for it is our faith, our creed, that God is one. We believe in one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit just as we are baptized with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in order to enter into the sacramental economy of salvation.
The movement of Jesus from earth into heaven, to the right hand of God, and of the Holy Spirit from heaven to us, right into our hearts, is part of a spiritual plan for all of humanity. The Good News, in its most basic form, allows us know that God accepts us as we are and just where we are in life: it is that God wants to be part of our lives and our world.
A people seemingly far away from the Law given to Moses may now know the compassionate, merciful, relenting God who was and is and ever shall be. Too often we want to separate God into the God of the Old Testament versus the God of the New Testament. But really, God is always the same. God is God is God.
The high theology of God mounting his throne to shouts of joy plays out in the everyday lives of human beings, in the affairs of earth where things don’t always seems so glorious and where they often get down-right messy.
As Jesus ascends into heaven he does so as a human being. Humanity, our humanity, through Jesus, ascends into heaven with him. God, then having received us vicariously in the humanity of Jesus, reaches down from heaven and embraces us in the state of life where we currently dwell, along with everything that we’re ashamed to tell the person sitting next to us. God accepts our frailty and flaws, and our messed-up pasts—and everyone, if we are honest, must admit to something in our lives having been a bit messy, if not in the past, at this very moment in time. These are the lives with which God so wants to commune.
Getting back to the poem that my wife shared with me, really Jesus doesn’t want us to tidy up first. Rather, he wants to come into our houses just the way they are. There’s no need to hide the mess we’ve made from him. Jesus came to earth to bring the reality of God to every person right where we are in the thick of it.
Ascension is a heavenly feast that points us to the promise of Jesus returning to dwell with us. All it asks of us, ultimately, is that we make room in our hearts, and that we get ready for something special. All that God requires from us today is that we offer our heart and our life just as it is: that we reach out and embrace the Lord who is willing to embrace us.