Jun 5, 2011

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What Is the Meaning of Jesus’ Ascension?

Ascension Sunday
Fr Ivor Kraft

My father was the second born of my grandparents’ seven children. When I was born, the second of my paternal grandparents’ grandchildren and the first grandson, all of my father’s family lived within walking distance of one another. I lived in the constant presence of my large family and although my mother worked, I never knew what a babysitter was. My father was in the building trades, and after the war (WWII that is), Cleveland was a boom town and we moved. My grandmother, the Matriarch, was not pleased, and began to refer to us as “the gypsies.” (That amused me then and it amuses me now.) Although we lived in another city, we went “home” to Pittsburgh for Christmas and Easter, Fourth of July and Memorial Day, anniversaries and lots of birthdays. In other words, we were a close family that was always together. I lived in a world of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

When I was in my early twenties, my grandmother died and the family was never together again. I had always been aware of just how different my father and his siblings were from one another. They were, in the jargon of the present, a diverse group of people. What I had never grasped was that they were united by their mother, and when she was gone, there was no one to bring them together.

Today I am speaking about the Ascension of our Lord, and the account of this very mysterious and important event is found in Acts 1: 6-14. Our Lord Jesus Christ appeared to his disciples and apostles for several weeks after his resurrection. St Paul tells us that he appeared at one point “to more than five hundred people at one time.” (1 Cor. 15) But after these many appearances, he “was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.” This cloud is the cloud of the Divine Presence, or Shekinah, sometimes called the “Glory” of the Lord. Jesus had returned to the One he called “his God and our God, his Father and our Father.”

One of the most interesting parts of the ascension narrative found in Acts is easy to overlook. “So when the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ After all that’s happened, all they’ve witnessed, all that the Lord has said to them, they are still waiting for him to declare himself the New and final David, call together an army, defeat the Romans, and make Jerusalem the navel of the world! That’s astonishing! (How many times do we humans need to hear something before it finally sinks in?) Once more, and for the last time, the Lord corrected them and promised them the power of the Holy Spirit, so that they could be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”

As for our Lord himself, we should note that he “ascended” to the Father incarnate, that is, with his crucified and resurrected body. Just as our Lord did not leave his body in the tomb and rise “spirituallyl” from the dead, that is, as a disembodied spirit or ghost, so he did not leave his body behind and ascend to the Father as a disembodied spirit, but he ascended as he had been raised. Jesus is eternally God and Man, eternally embodied. In the person of Jesus, the Word made flesh, God has “humanized” himself, and by ascending “in the flesh” our Lord has made a place in God the most holy Trinity for us, his adopted brothers and sisters. Human beings are embodied souls, and our destiny is not to become angels (that is, disembodied spirits), but to become the men and women we were created to be.

As for our Lord himself, it is worth asking what he’s been doing since his ascension. This is not an idle question of the sort that a student supposedly asked St Augustine of Hippo. According to the story, the great Augustine was asked what God was doing before He created all things. Augustine reportedly answered, “He was out in the woods cutting switches to beat people who asked that question.”

The question of our Lord’s activity since his ascension, however, is of another order, and the author of the letter to the Hebrews gives us an answer. Our Lord, he tells us, “Always lives to make intercession for us.” (Heb. 7:25) As to the content of that intercession of our Lord, we should look to the Gospel of John, our Lord’s intercessory prayer to the Father before his arrest and crucifixion.

I’m certain that most of you have heard that we are to be “in the world but not of the world.” Those words are not found in the Bible, but are drawn from our Lord’s prayer reported by St John. “I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours; all mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.” Just think: our Lord is telling the Father that he is glorified in us.

There’s no reason whatsoever to believe that our Lord prayed this prayer, known as his high priestly prayer, just once. It wasn’t like he said the prayer once and forgot about it. I believe this is his constant intercession for us. The words he spoke two thousand years ago, he speaks to us today, and the prayers he offered then he offers now.

“And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”

The 1960s were the decade of Christian unity. The World and National Council of Churches were in their heyday, and the Roman Catholic Church held a great council, Vatican II, during which Rome began to make overtures to what they called “separated brethren.” (It was an improvement over calling us “damned heretics”!) We were all going to be one big happy family. The 1960s also marked the beginning of a decline in church attendance unknown up until that time. The decline has not yet ended and Christians seem more divided than ever. I’m convinced the reason is that we became concerned with “unity” rather than with the Lord. Indeed, the World and National Council of Churches went so far as to declare that “doctrine divides but service unites.” But nothing can unite us but the Lord.

And this brings us back to my father’s family. They were united as a family as long as their attention was on my grandmother and not on one another. They were united by a person, and when she was gone they ceased to assemble and to celebrate together. They had never sought unity; they had sought the presence of the one who united them.

To once more quote our Lord Jesus Christ, “Let those who have ears to hear, hear.”

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