Sunday, May 08, 2016

Sunday: The Ascension of the Lord

Acts 1:1–11; Ephesians 1:17–23; Luke 24:46–53
If you've read the four gospels—and I surely hope you have—you know that each of the gospel writers takes a unique perspective and recalls certain details differently than the others. The first three, the synoptic gospels, are pretty similar to each other but have some small variations. That's why they are called the synoptic gospels, since synoptic means "seeing with the same eyes." The Gospel of John, of course, varies dramatically from the first three. It reminds me of a funny image I've seen on Facebook. Jesus is sitting with the Apostles, and he says to them, "Guys, I need you to listen very carefully. I don't want four different versions of this going around." Yet, that's what we have—four versions of essentially the same story but each with unique perspectives.
This weekend, as we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension, we have two readings by the same author that not only don't match each other but vary from the other gospel accounts.
Luke's writings relay the event of Jesus' ascension. St. Luke is the only one of the evangelists who goes into detail here. Note that in the Gospel of Luke he tells them to stay in Jerusalem until the spirit comes to them. Jesus seems to ascend on the same day that he appears to them, after he has opened their minds to the scripture. In Acts, which was also written by Luke, Jesus stays with them for 40 days and teaches them, and only then ascends.
Matthew says that Jesus is going before them to Galilee and makes no mention of the Ascension. Mark makes a general reference to Jesus being taken up but doesn't mention where or when. John mentions all of them going to Galilee but doesn't mention the Ascension. Why such variation between the accounts on this point?
As I mentioned, Luke and Acts were written by the same evangelist. Very few scholars disagree on that point. Both address their writings to this figure Theophilus, which means "God-lover." Some speculate that this might be a generic reference to all the Christian faithful, except that in the Gospel of Luke, the evangelist says, "most excellent Theophilus," which suggests that it is someone whom the author knows and esteems. But one thing that is very clear from Sacred Tradition is this: Luke is the only one who is getting his whole story from one of the people who did not follow Christ in his life time. He is the companion of St. Paul, who came to be an apostle after Christ's death and ascension.
It may be possible that Luke was missing a small part of the Gospel tradition simply because his primary source was someone who was not a primary witness. And it may also be the case that he had a different audience and simply focused on different elements, perhaps some that the other evangelists did not think were necessary for their audiences. That's something for the biblical scholars to debate. For our purposes, we just have to accept that we have four different witnesses, and like all eye witness testimony, different perspectives result in slightly different views.
But we do have this one event, the Ascension, that connects Luke and Acts. Where Luke ends, Acts begins. It is the hinge on which the door to the early Church swings open. Jesus notes that He must return to the Father so that the Father will send the advocate, the Holy Spirit, to remind the Apostles of all that had been revealed to them. Shortly after the Ascension, the Apostles return to the Upper Room, where the Holy Spirit descends on them at the Feast of Pentecost, an event commonly referred to as the birth of the Church. That event is St. Luke's primary concern. In Acts, he is providing a history of the early Church. The style of writing, with this prologue to a particular audience, is precisely the sort of thing that a history of that time would include. But it's a history with a particular aim—to communicate the truth about Jesus and to share His gospel.
So what does the Ascension mean for us as 21st century Christians? What did it mean for the 1st century Christians? Well, we can understand it a bit better if we think about how Jesus turns everything upside down. He reverses the human experience in order to invite us to enter into it, and then we experience it in the opposite order. Let me use a few examples to explain what I mean. First, He exists eternally, then becomes incarnate, while we become incarnate naturally to be born again into eternity. He is baptized to sanctify the waters of the earth, whereas we are sanctified by them. Even his method of speaking shows these same reversals: in the Beatitudes, where he tells us that the poor and persecuted are blessed; in the Gospel of Luke, he says that those who try to gain their lives will lose them, but those who lose or let go of their lives will save them. He speaks in these paradoxes with such frequency that the Gospel of Mark suggests that the Apostles are actually afraid to question Him. This is what scripture means when it says that he will be a sign of contradiction. He will force us to reexamine just what it means to live a good life.
The Ascension is yet another of these reversals. He has come down from heaven to assume a human nature—a human form. He's still Divine and all-powerful, but he takes on the form of weakness—of the temporary and passing flesh. And then, God the Son does something no one would expect from a Divine being: He allows Himself to be killed brutally. But in this single person both human and Divine, He has done something truly miraculous: He has joined human nature to the Divine, so that the human nature now overcomes death, and He Himself rises from the dead. Of all the reversals, this is the most stunning we can imagine.
But Jesus is not the God of average expectations. He's the God of mind-blowing outcomes. He's not finished with His work of redemption. The last step is His Ascension. He returns to where He was before, but there's a difference. He returns with His resurrected human nature—a transformed human nature, a deified human nature—one joined to the very life of God. And again, with these reversals in mind, the baptized ascend at death and then are later resurrected. His resurrection is a promise, and the Ascension is its fulfillment. Our ascension begins at baptism and ends with the resurrection. We are experiencing our own salvation in reverse. We are already saved. We just need to realize it... and act like it. If we did that, the world would be transformed.
St. Athanasius, whose feast day was last Monday, famously wrote that "the Son of God became man so that we might become God." Many of the early Church Fathers from Irenaeus to Clement of Alexandria to Augustine wrote similar statements. But what does this mean? We don't actually become God. That job is taken for ever and ever, amen. What it means, though, is that we are brought into eternal participation in the Divine life of God. We are together with Him and seeing Him directly and understanding Him without our earthly limitations in the way. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:12: "We see in a mirror darkly, but then, face to face." John wrote in chapter 3 of his first letter, "[W]e shall be like him, for we shall see Him as He is." All of the obstructions will be gone, and we will comprehend, as well as human nature can, the mind of God.
That is what the Ascension means for us. He will bring our bodies back to life, but more importantly, He will bring us into His presence forever, and there can be nothing greater than that.

Today, we also remember our mothers. Coincidentally, we all have them. But let's first recognize the greatest of our mothers, the Blessed Mother, whose image all of you as women and girls carry. Her experience is the experience of each of you: whether it's in her life without a child before the Annunciation, or in the raising of a child, or in loss and grief. You all share in her experience, and we are blessed by you. Happy Mothers' Day.