Ascension, 13 May 21
You may remember how the Lord Jesus said, “I, if I am lifted up will draw all people to myself” whilst teaching his disciples after the first Palm Sunday and in Holy Week but before Maundy Thursday and as part of his preparation for what was to come. The “lifting up” being his being raised up on the Tree of Life at Calvary to die for their and our salvation, indeed for the salvation of the world. Then there follows a second “lifting up” on Easter Day when Jesus is raised from the Tomb at the Resurrection, thus fulfilling his own promise that that he would build the Temple in three days meaning of course his own body which is the true Temple not made with hands. Now forty days later, during which period the Risen Jesus made a number of appearances to his disciples, teaching them about the Kingdom of God, to prepare them more fully for his departure from this world when he would finally be taken from their sight.
In the readings set for today, year B, we find, firstly, the opening of St. Luke`s second great work, The Acts of the Apostles, being a history of the earliest church, and written, like his Gospel, for the benefit of one Theophilus. There are a number of theories as to who Theophilus was but, of course, in translation it means “friend of God” or “One who loves God” so in a special sense both Luke`s Gospel and that first Church History Book is written for all who seek to know God through His Son Jesus Christ.
St. Luke records that Jesus, before he ascended into heaven had been at table with the disciples and told them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait there for what the Father had promised, emphasising that it is what they had heard him speak of: `John baptised with water but you, not many days hence, will be baptised with the Holy Spirit. ` Jesus then tells them that when they receive the Holy Spirit they will be his witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judaea and Samaria and, indeed to the ends of the earth. We have only to read the rest of the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of St. Paul to see just how rapidly the Christian Faith spread through Syria, Lebanon Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and to Rome.
The Gospel reading for this year, from St. Mark, is written briefly and urgently and tells how Jesus showed himself to the eleven telling them to `Go out to the whole world, proclaiming the Good News to all creation. He who believes and is baptised will be saved; he who does not believe will be condemned.` No holds barred there, and then the Lord tells of the powers that will be given to those who follow him if they have faith. The Lord is then taken up into heaven to take his place at the right hand of God (the Father). Mark records that the disciples went everywhere preaching the Good News whilst the Lord working with them confirmed the word that they spoke by the signs that accompanied it.
In Mark`s Gospel there is no mention that the disciples had to remain in Jerusalem to receive the Holy Spirit. However, St. Luke in his Gospel, ch. 21 verses 46-53, makes it plain that the ministry of the disciples should begin in Jerusalem and although he had led them to the outskirts of Bethany to witness his ascension when they fell down and worshipped him. It was then, we are told, that they went back to Jerusalem full of joy and were continually in the Temple praising God until the great Pentecost Experience and, if you like, the Second Birth of the Church.
If you should go to Jerusalem on pilgrimage, or have been on pilgrimage, one of sites visited by pilgrims is at the top of the Mount of Olives, which is, after all, on the outskirts of Bethany. It is a small octagonal building, now belonging to the Muslims, which is said to be the site of Our Lord`s Ascension. There is a massive footprint, said to be that of Jesus and the size is explained by the energy released as the Lord was taken up into heaven.
There is also the possibility, according to a certain way of reading St. Matthew`s account of Our Lords Ascension, that it took place in Galilee for he writes in chapter 28 verses 16 and 17: “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” After this Jesus instructed them to make disciples of all nations baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and told them to teach everything that he had commanded them ending with the assurance: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Indeed, he is with us, until he returns again, by the power of his Holy Spirit – and of that more in ten days time!
And what about St. John`s Gospel and The Ascension. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that St. John`s Gospel is written in a quite different style from the other three and in a less factual and more meditative and contemplative way. The only direct reference we find to Our Lord`s Ascension, as we find it in St. John`s Gospel is the simply recorded statement of Jesus to St. Mary Magdalene on the Day of Resurrection when he says to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to My God an your God.`”
In reality it matters not a great deal as to where Jesus ascended to the Father but that he has ascended to the Father – and the purpose, in accord with his Father`s will to prepare a place for us and all who truly seek to follow him. Yes, Jesus was lifted up upon the Cross for our Salvation and, in being lifted up to Heaven on that first Ascension Day paves the way for us also to be lifted up to share his Divine Life in all its fullness as his brothers and sisters in the citizenship of the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.