The Ascension is one of the glorious mysteries of the rosary. In fact the adjective ‘glorious’ seems naturally to apply to the Ascension, even more, I dare say, than to the Resurrection. The oldest Eucharistic Prayer in continuous use in the Western Church, the Gregorian Canon, reads: “calling to mind the blessed Passion of this same Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, likewise His Resurrection from the grave, and also His glorious Ascension into heaven.” Few Christian artists have been able to resist painting the Ascension. In fact the Ascension gives the artist more to work with. We know the Resurrection only by its consequences – no one saw it happen – the empty tomb and the Resurrected Body of Jesus. But there were witnesses to the Ascension. The first three gospels, depending on the evidence of eye-witnesses, give us details about the Ascension. St. Luke gives us two accounts, one in his gospel and then again in the Acts of the Apostles, the first reading this Sunday.
It is hard to imagine how the Ascension could be anything other than glorious. Glorious not only in terms of Jesus but glorious for us as well because we are given a glorious vocation: Jesus says “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth”. Yet the eye witnesses are the source of the one flaw in an otherwise perfect picture. How do they respond to Jesus? By saying “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” We can imagine that Jesus, when he heard that, might have thought “maybe I had better stick around.”
Jesus, as St. Luke knew because he tells the story, had already dealt with that illusion on the road to Emmaus. “We had hoped” they said: “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Jesus put that to rest by giving them a bible study and breaking the bread: “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” and “he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.”
Illusions die hard and I suppose this is the one detail of the Ascension that we can most easily identify with. I cannot say for sure about you but most of the time I am afraid I just want to know when Jesus is going to do what I want him to do. I want to know when he is going to straighten out the political system, our dying culture, our economy, the folly and madness of Christian disunity, not to mention a bunch of problems closer to home. But what Jesus wants to know is when I am going to do what he wants me to.
So begins the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, The wonder is that what follows after that is the same fools who want Jesus to restore the kingdom become saints and convert the world. How did that happen? Quite simply Jesus told them what to do and for once they did it.
First of all, Jesus tells them “not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father.” “Waiting” said Cardinal Newman “is a permanent Christian disposition”. That is so waiting is the only way to change. “Quick and easy” is usually a dubious claim but when it comes to our moral life it is a dangerous claim. The way we forgive people and get forgiven by others is by having space and time to see what is really happening. Hi-speed internet may or may not be a desirable thing but there is no hi-speed spiritual life. I get in the mail or more likely these days emails almost everyday invitations to church growth or church planning conference, when the biblical thing to do is to have a silent retreat. “Sing up now to be sure you have a place” the emails say. But Jesus tells us “to wait for the promise of the Father.”
Second, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you”. We think immediately of that wild scene on the Day of Pentecost, but we ought to remember that there is not one Pentecost but several, not one descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Church, but many. Most of all we need to remember the Easter Evening Pentecost, when Jesus gave to his Church through the Holy Spirit the ministry of forgiving sins, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Without this very private Pentecost any attempt to witness to the world is simply a witness not of Jesus but of our own chaos and disorder. People like to say “the Church is a hospital for sinners” – I guess they mean like a VA hospital. There is a treatment for sin and these days at least you will probably not have to wait too long to get help.
Finally, St. Luke says “all these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus”. The Greek is really much stronger, not simply “devoted to prayer” but “praying constantly” or “prayer without ceasing”. I have sometimes replied to the church growth crowd that if they really want to grow the church, then work for a revival of the religious life and especially of those religious communities whose purpose is contemplation and prayer. They think I am crazy unlike St. Francisfolk who know I am crazy. But consider this: St. Therese of Lisieux along with St. Francis Xavier is a co-patron of missions. St. Francis Xavier, we can understand, he was the first missionary to go to Japan. But St. Therese what did she ever do? She entered Carmel at 15 and died at age 24. What she did was pray, not to mention sharing the fruits of her contemplation in The Story of a Soul which converted thousands.
OK, we cannot wait for a revival of the religious life but we can pray and not just every once in a while but like the Apostles pray without ceasing. If there is a single soul in this parish, who is not praying for the conversion of the world, beginning with this parish and going to the end of the world, then you need to get with the program. Pray by yourself. Prayer with others. Pray at every Mass. Day and night. It is not optional.
Because that is what turned the motely crew into the Church. Still does. Nothing has changed.