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I am with you always

Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Ascension Thursday

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 46; Ephesians 1:17-23 or Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:19-23; Luke 24:46-53

Pictures of the Ascension sometimes look faintly comic. All that is seen of Christ is a pair of feet dangling from the sky, while the apostles gaze upwards open-mouthed at the Lord who they know they will see no more in this world. These pictures should be a kind of challenge. If they are to be understood, an effort needs to be made to look beyond the dangling feet and the open mouths. Here, as so often in Christian symbolism, the meaning does not lie just on the surface, but somewhere behind and within the images. The meaning has to be discovered. We need to get past the picture language.

Many of the New Testament writers do not report the Ascension at all, though they take it for granted that it has happened. The writer who does describe the Ascension – St Luke - is very careful in the way he draws on Jewish symbolism to bring out the meaning of what has happened. The main point to grasp for St Luke is that the Ascension represents Jesus’s divine enthronement as King and Messiah. By means of the Ascension, Jesus enters his glory. In the Ascension Jesus rises forever into the heart of God. He is not just a man, then, he lives and reigns with and in God.

So what the Ascension represents is a transition in the disciples’ understanding about who Jesus is, and a transition in the way in which Jesus is present to them. Jesus is not just a historical figure, someone to be admired and remembered. He does not just belong to a particular moment of time. After the Ascension he is also known in a different way. He is to be recognised no more only ‘in a human way’ as St Paul puts it. He is to be recognised especially as the one who says ‘I am with you always, till the end of time’.

These are mysterious words. It is impossible completely to fathom them. But some of what they mean can be put quite simply. Christ is with us always, because he is to be the light by which we see. That is, we are to see the world in a new way because we see it through him. This new seeing is something that everyone has to learn. A lot of the time, religious behaviour pushes people in another direction. The temptation is to try to hold onto some kind of religious security, even to make Jesus into our Jesus. But if we live in the light, that will not be just an added feature of our daily life – one more item in our minds. That light will slowly but surely change our vision of the world.

To have faith in the ascended Christ, then, is to let your life be illumined by that divine light – eventually to see the meaning of Christ’s life in the midst of our life, of all life. This does not mean forgetting about the history of Christ. But it does mean that we no longer think about Jesus as someone completely outside us. Rather he is somehow among us, gradually setting us free, teaching us – insofar as we are able - to see the world with trust and hope and love. Prayer is the struggle to become more deeply in touch with this life that is gradually becoming real. That prayer will slowly make us live lives more like Christ, lives which are faithful to each other and to God.

If we want to see the meaning of ascension then, we are best off not looking at a pair of dangling feet. We’d be better to look at the lives of the saints. Think of Maximilian Kolbe and how the ascended Christ lived in his heart. Trusting in the living Christ, he could give his life for others. With faith in the loving reality behind all creation, even in a starvation bunker he could sing hymns of praise.


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