Solemnity of the Ascension – May 24, 2020

There’s a group of parishioners whom I’ve nicknamed “The Board of Directors.”  Before the pandemic, The Board of Directors met regularly after daily Liturgy.  They discussed pertinent issues and developed solutions for the world’s most significant problems.  Unfortunately for the world, The Board of Directors has no Secretary; consequently, they were in the habit of meeting daily to address the very same problems they had resolved the day before. 

The current restrictions on public gatherings have made it impossible for The Board of Directors to meet on a regular basis.  A week or so ago, I realized that the restrictions on their freedom to assemble had taken a toll on them: I saw them tailgating in the church parking lot.  Like the rest of us, The Board of Directors longs for the good old days when life was normal. 

The desire for a normal life is universal.  Everyone wants to have normal, healthy relationships and to enjoy normal activities.  When we are deprived of normalcy, the world seems unfriendly and alien.  People in the ancient world experienced this same desire for a normal life; like us, when deprived of normalcy they longed for a remedy. 

Today’s first reading is the account of the Ascension as told by the Acts of the Apostles.  Jesus had gathered his disciples together to bid them farewell before he returned to God the Father.  The disciples asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)  In ancient Hebrew culture, the “kingdom” was a religio-cultural metaphor for a normal, healthy life.  For us, the “kingdom of God” is one of those aspects of Jesus’ teaching that requires some background information in order to be understood properly.   

Our nation has always been governed by a representative democracy.  We have never had a King or an aristocracy.  Today, in the United States, the notion of a “kingdom” also carries with it some emotional baggage associated with our negative experiences of gender inequality.  Our cultural assessments of a “kingdom,” therefore, are not helpful in understanding the disciples’ question in today’s first reading. 

Jesus often preached about the “kingdom.”  He said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent.” (Lk. 4:43)  He told his followers, “seek the kingdom, and these other things will be given you besides.” (Lk. 9:62; 12:31)  He said that the “Father is pleased to give you the kingdom” and that “the kingdom of God is among you.” (Lk. 17:21)    

In Jesus’ culture, the “kingdom” described a longed-for normalcy in which everything and everyone lived and acted according to God’s will.  When people and the rest of creation live as God intends, then everyone enjoys happy and healthy relationships.  Specifically, the “kingdom” to which the disciples referred was the absence of Roman Imperial rule and the presence of authentic worship, self-governance, and shared prosperity.  The “kingdom” was the description used for living in right relationships with other people and with God. 

Our world is basically good but lacking sufficient goodness.  Think of the last time you went to a grocery store.  You probably looked for some items that were absent.  There were many good things in the grocery store but, perhaps not all the things you wanted.  The world is like that; some of the goodness we anticipate is absent.  Despite the political differences between us and Jesus’ contemporaries, human aspirations and desires have not changed.  We long for the same things that Jesus’ contemporaries wanted.  They wanted normal, happy lives.  Jesus promised this in his preaching about the kingdom of God. 

Jesus inaugurated the kingdom with his preaching and death; we participate in the beginnings of the kingdom when we practice Jesus’ teachings and die to self with him.  The disciples came to understand what we know, namely, that we must wait for the fulfillment of the kingdom; it will come in its fullness on the last day when we share in Jesus’ resurrection. 

I’d like to offer a simile that might help to explain the inchoate presence of God’s kingdom in our lives.  On Thanksgiving Day, when the meal is being prepared, everyone knows what to expect and precisely how the meal will turn out; this is true even in the early stages of the preparation.  We live in the period of time when the kingdom is growing towards its completion.  We know what to expect and precisely how things will turn out.  Just as on the Thanksgiving morning, there is reason to be hopeful about God’s kingdom even while we anticipate an end that hasn’t arrived yet.  Further, our reason for hope is also an obligation to proclaim the coming of the kingdom.  Everyone wants and deserves a normal, happy life.  We know that God’s promise of the kingdom will be fulfilled for us; therefore, we are obliged to share the proclamation about God’s remedy for the brokenness and imperfections of the world.