Some of you might be confused by the timing of today’s feast. The feast of the Ascension, a holy day of obligation, used to be celebrated on a Thursday in keeping with the account in the Acts of the Apostles. Our first reading this Sunday says that Jesus instructed his disciples for forty days after his resurrection, and then he was taken up into heaven. (Acts 1:3)
Last Thursday would have been forty days after Easter. Most dioceses in the United States transfer Ascension to the nearest Sunday in order to make the holy days of obligation a little less burdensome. Consequently, today is the feast of the Ascension.
If you’re bothered by the addition of a few days to the number “forty,” there are more significant things about which to worry. Among those things is the fact that the author of the Acts of the Apostles had previously written that Jesus ascended on the day of his resurrection (Easter), rather than forty days later. (Luke 24:51)
The contradiction between Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles is made more troubling by the fact that Matthew’s Gospel reports that the Ascension took place in Galilee rather than in Jerusalem. (Matthew 28:16-20) These multiple contradictions are either an indication of falsehood or an invitation to look closer at the events depicted.
In our society we have become so inured to the prevarications of criminals and poseurs we might be tempted to disregard these discrepancies, but to do so would be to ignore a deep truth the Scriptures intend to reveal.
Upon closer examination, the feast of the Ascension is a reference to transcendence and ultimacy. However, this fact is not without its own problems. Jesus’ Ascension is a statement about his return to the presence of God the Father and his absence from the disciples. Jesus exists now in the full glory of divinity that he enjoyed before the Incarnation. Sadly, this is yet another concept that our contemporary society ignores or dismisses.
How does one speak publicly about religious concepts such as these? How can transcendence be explained to a society which believes only in the visible and tangible? How can one address the issue of ultimacy with a society which believes in nothing beyond this present existence?
There was a time when one could speak about this life in relationship to the next life, and be taken seriously. That time has passed. The apparent contradiction between Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles was intended to juxtapose the completed mission of Jesus with the on-going mission of the Church. Church, however, is now largely considered to be a relic from a bygone era.
There is one additional category, although foreign to the experience of contemporary society, that holds the potential of addressing our society in a way that can be understood and appreciated by nearly everyone.
We live at a time and in a place that is largely bereft of hope. I heard a very cynical joke recently. You are presumed to be normal if you have one pet. You’re presumed to be desperate if you have four pets. You are judged to be crazy if you have thirty-two pets. The order of those judgments is reversed if the number of your teeth is being counted instead of the number of your pets.
There are a great many people who fall into the category of “desperate.” I don’t base this statement on the numbers of pets in American households. There are many who are in despair about financial or employment troubles. Nations around the world are in turmoil because of fears about security, prosperity and national identity. Social media is a catalogue of desperate attempts to garner attention.
Like Jesus, hope is very present to us because of its felt absence. Even the most cynical among us can see the weight of the burden imposed by the lack of hope in our societal and individual lives. Hope is also the experience that most accurately reflects the realities of transcendence and ultimacy.
As disciples of Jesus we need to speak publicly about the hope we have in the Lord’s resurrection. Wider society, for its part, needs to hear a message of hope. We can begin to discharge our responsibilities as disciples by living hopeful lives. Although the Lord Jesus is physically absent from us, he remains present in the Spirit and in the promise of reconciliation with God and neighbor.
We can begin to proclaim publicly the Gospel’s message of hope by affirming human nature’s desire for more than what the limitations of this existence can afford. The one thing that we must avoid entirely is participating in the cynicism and desperation that surrounds us.
There is an ancient Christian text called the “Didache.” It was probably written at the end of the first century of the common era. In the section that decribes Christian moral teaching, the ancient author wrote, “Do not fall into cynicism about human behavior, but reprove those who sin: some people deserve your prayers, and others deserve to be loved more than you love yourself.” (Didache 2:7)
This ancient expression of Christian hope is as relevant today as it was when it was written nineteen centuries ago. It’s not only good advice, it is guidance and encouragement to fulfill our responsibility to the world – to be witnesses to hope.