Returning from an appointment in St. Petersburg last week, I noticed long lines of panicky motorists hoping to fill their automobiles with gasoline. An interruption in the flow of gasoline through the Colonial Pipeline (that runs from Houston, Texas to Linden, New Jersey), caused widespread panic and, inevitably, hoarding.
I enjoyed a good laugh at the expense of those hoarding gasoline in Pinellas County because none of Florida’s gasoline supply comes from the Colonial Pipeline. All gasoline sold in Florida is transported by tanker ships.
The interruption of the normal operation of the Colonial Pipeline would have had absolutely no effect on Florida motorists, if it weren’t for the baseless panic that ensued. The same people who hoarded paper towels and pork ‘n beans last year fell back into their default setting of irrational fear last week. As a result, gas stations throughout the county ran out of gasoline.
Clearly, there was something important missing in St. Petersburg last week, but it wasn’t gasoline. I’d like to make an observation about what was truly missing.
Today’s first reading tells Luke’s second account of the Ascension of the Lord. Curiously, this version of the Ascension contradicts Luke’s earlier version of the Ascension. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus returns to the Father on the night of Easter Sunday. In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus ascends after forty days had elapsed. (Acts 1:3)
The difference in the two accounts is not the result of a lapse of memory on the part of the author. Rather, the difference in the accounts is the result of the author addressing a changed situation in the church community.
The first generation of Jesus’ disciples expected that he would return in glory during their lifetimes. This immanent expectation of the parousia is reflected in Luke’s Gospel’s account of the Ascension occurring on Easter Sunday night. As time wore on, it became increasingly apparent that Jesus’ return would be delayed. The account of the Ascension in the Acts of the Apostles reflects the Church’s coming to terms with a delayed parousia. In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus ascended after forty days, that is, after an extended period of time; he had to wait a while, just as the apostolic Church had to wait a while for the Last Day. The underlying message of the two dissimilar accounts remains the same: trust in God rather than in the temporal. Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven because of his faithfulness to the Father; a similar fate awaits Jesus’ faithful disciples.
The Ascension is not an event separate from the Resurrection; rather, it is one of many aspects of the Resurrection. The Ascension is God’s act of putting everything right again after Jesus’ death. The Second Person of the Trinity relinquished his divine glory in order to take on our human flesh. In the Ascension, Jesus is welcomed back into the divine presence; the inference is that we, too, will be welcomed into the divine presence if we remain faithful to Jesus’ teachings.
Jesus’ absence from God (in the Incarnation), was remedied by the Ascension. We hope one day to experience the perfect union with God that Jesus experiences today. In the meantime, we have Jesus’ pledge of his continued presence through the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:8) Our hope, based on Jesus’ promise, cannot be forgotten without serious consequences; an example of those serious consequences was on display locally last week.
There are many things that can cause one anxiety. Guilt over personal failure, the threat of illness or death, the loss of love, and disordered desires are but a few examples of potential causes of anxiety. All of these, however, are identical at their roots. All worries and concerns are the result of forgetting God’s presence in one’s life. The unfounded worry about a non-existent threat to the gasoline supply caused many Pinellas County drivers last week to make themselves the cause of what they feared most. The catastrophe that befell the county last week was the result of a lack of faith rather than a lack of fuel. Anytime one places one’s hope in the finite, one is destined for self-inflicted disappointment.
Luke edited his previous version of the Ascencion in order to address his congregation’s concern about the delay of Jesus’ return in glory. The edited message, however, was the same as the original version: trust in God rather than in the things that pass away. Those who trust in God are never disappointed. Those who trust in the perishable are chronically disappointed. Each person gets to choose the outcome of her or his expectations. St. Luke reminds us to choose to be faithful to God because God is always faithful to God’s promises.