From St. Paul writing to the Church at Colossae:
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God. ( 3:1 )
If you think back on the Gospel story, you will remember that there were many times in our Lord’s life and ministry when he was deserted by those closest to him. At one point his family search for him thinking that he has gone mad. His disciples misunderstand him over and over again. And particularly and poignantly, he is deserted and abandoned at the end. Remember. That bleak night in the Garden of Gethsemane when he faces death and sought some kind of fellowship and comfort. He asked them to stay with him while he prayed – his soul in agony and turmoil – but they fell asleep. And that same night, St. Peter, the Rock, denied him three times in his hearing. And at the crucifixion – again desertion and abandonment. He was driven through the streets to Golgotha where he was nailed to the cross, and the disciples prepared to get out of town. Only his mother and one disciple, out of twelve, stood by him as he died.
Remember, too, the account of the road to Emmaus, which we heard a few weeks ago. Two disciples are travelling away from Jerusalem. They story was ever, ended. He had been executed. He was dead, time to go home and forget the three years they had been with him. And even though they had heard him say he would rise from the dead, and even though they had heard the women report that he had risen from the dead, they didn’t believe it, and they abandon him again, until he finds them.
We know these stories well, and we know how troubling they are – the man of peace, the healer, the preacher of love and fellowship and mercy, deserted by his closest friends. And we may well say to ourselves – rather smugly, I think – how very typical of humankind, to run away when the going gets rough, to turn their backs on the one who came to save.
But, you know, insofar as most Christians today are concerned, that story is not really typical. Indeed, in a curious way, the opposite is true. Christians today – you and I – don’t desert our Lord during what we may call his earthly ministry. We know the account of his life in the Gospels well. We read it, we study it, we ponder the meaning of his teaching and parables. We follow the liturgical year which presents episodes of his life week by week. We celebrate his humble birth at Christmas. We stay with him during the events of Holy Week. We are there close by at his crucifixion on Good Friday. We watch at the tomb, and finally we shout for joy at the news of his resurrection.
But there, it seems, we often stop. Spiritually we venture no further. There where miracles and mystery and glory have reached a white heat of intensity, we desert. One would think the story ended there. One would think that there was no more.
But, of course, this point, the conclusion of what one might call Jesus’ earthly ministry – this, in fact, is really the beginning. As the New Testament sees it, the real story begins with the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. And in these coming weeks we celebrate this beginning. Last Thursday – and today – the Ascension, which is the initiation of Jesus’ cosmic ministry as mediator for us. Next Sunday, Pentecost – the feast of the Church, when the disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, were given supernatural and divine power to proclaim the triumph of Jesus and the power to make his triumph effective in the world. A power passed on to those who would follow them in the Church. And Trinity – the feast day of the mysterious inner life of the Godhead which we, through Jesus, are invited to enter into and to share. And finally, Corpus Christi – the feast of Jesus’ Body and Blood in the Mass – a way in which we do really and truly share in the life of God. And so – here we are – on a threshold. This is the beginning, the beginning of the spirit-filled, powerful and really present life of faith.
But why do we stop. Why do we seem to abandon at this point. Why do we fail to take advantage of the new reality which God has created in Jesus. Perhaps – no, certainly, because the life of faith in Jesus makes demands upon us. Rather scary demands. But also, because I suspect that deep within us all is the desire to have a God we can control – a god we can set up in his proper place and proper time – a god which we ourselves can manage. (That’s why idolatry and magic will always be a temptation for people, no matter how sophisticated and intellectual they think they are.) And perhaps that’s why we so much prefer the “historical Jesus,” and stop short of his Ascension. When we picture Jesus Christ as a good man of the past, he is much less troublesome, for, as past, as history, we imagine he has no claim upon us, and makes no demands beyond his “admirable example.”
And even the Resurrection. It is easy for us to think of this only as the past – God’s vindication of Jesus’ “admirable example.” Something which might be filed away on a shelf marked “history” and therefore distant from our present. But the Resurrection of Jesus is inseparably connected with his Ascension, and the Ascension proclaims to us clearly that he is now splendidly and appropriately exempt from the restrictions of place and time. There is no shelf marked “history” which can contain him.
The one who died and rose from the dead is the one who ascended to the Father.
The one who lived and died at a certain time and a certain place is now the one who has entered the Absolute and is beyond time and place “to fill all things with his presence.”
The one who was, then and there, is ascended, always here and now, the Lord of every here and now. Alpha, Omega, beginning and end, every moment, every place is his.
Jesus is not “going home” when he ascends to the Father. That is a sentimental and stupid idea, and it is also wrong. Properly speaking, he has no home, unless his home be the perfect Unity and Love between the Father and the Son in the Godhead. No. Jesus is not going home, rather, he is creating “home.” Making all reality his home and ours.
Paul writes to the Philippians:
Wherefore God has highly exalted him and given him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ( 2:9-11 )
We cannot manipulate him and we cannot escape him. The Pascal Candle of the Resurrection still burns to signal his risen and ascended presence. Here at the Advent it is placed inconveniently in the Choir, so that we cannot ignore it. It is an intrusion, so to speak, in the Mass, for the risen, ascended Jesus is God’s intrusion into the world. God’s invasion of the world.
We cannot escape him, we cannot ignore him, we cannot manipulate him. He is not to be filed away as past. He is here right now. And he is to be acknowledged, to be followed, to be loved and obeyed.