When I was in college, we celebrated a Holy Thursday liturgy that culminated in a fantastic light show on the ceiling. At first, it was subtle, and then as vocal music yielded to instrumental, we all began to notice the intertwining, dancing lights above our heads. It must have lasted almost a minute when suddenly a voice boomed out, "Why are you standing there looking up? Go tell the world what you have seen!"
It was a fabulous "gotcha" moment — and the message stayed with us.
Getting down to the mission is surely part of the message here; the scene reminds us of the Transfiguration, when Jesus told Peter that they didn't have time to camp out on the mountain, there was work to do and much to learn. Nevertheless, we could imagine an alternative scene at the end of the Ascension story.
|The Ascension of the Lord|
What if one or two of the disciples had the nerve to answer back when the angels spoke? (We can tell by their outfits that they were both angels.) Speaking back is not out of the question. After all, at the very beginning of the Gospel of Luke, Mary questioned an angel — as did Zachariah, with less positive results.
A Peter or Martha might have said, "He told us it's not yet time! We're supposed to stick around for whatever's coming next."
Others might have gotten the courage to chime in: "Why are we looking up? Because we don't know what's about to happen!"
"Where else are we supposed to look? We need to see beyond this spot where our feet are sinking in the mud of fear and confusion. All around us we see nothing but signs of all that went wrong in the past few weeks."
If there were anyone on the side of the angels, it might have been Mary Magdalene. Having understood that she couldn't cling to Jesus, she could have encouraged the rest: "Come on, guys, I know you can't just take it from me, but he said he would remain with us … Don't you get it? This is just like when Elijah went off in the fiery chariot — he left Elisha with a double dose of his spirit. So, for once, let's try doing what he told us!"
While that's imaginary, Luke's story does portray the tension between looking heavenward and getting down to Earth. Thinking about it, we can well imagine how unprepared those disciples must have felt for their mission.
The Letter to the Ephesians offers a description of the gifts the disciples needed to move forward. In today's selection from that letter, we hear the prayer "May the God of our Lord … give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him. May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened that you may know the hope that belongs to his call … the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe."
What a prayer for semi-willing, mostly confused disciples!
That prayer begins by grounding us in our faith, reminding us that the will of God the Father, "our Lord," and the Spirit is always for our good. When it asks for a "Spirit of wisdom and revelation," it opens us to the Spirit that gives us the ability to read the signs of the times, to recognize how God is luring us forward through the people and events of our days. To pray that "the eyes of our hearts be enlightened" pleads for a God-sized vision, for hope that will go further than all our imaginations put together.
We can celebrate the Ascension as an invitation to imagination that leads us to ask for such a blessing. We are invited to stand with the disciples who heard the promise, who knew they wouldn't see Jesus anymore but who were still charged with carrying on his mission.
Like them, we must face the very real, dispiriting events of our times, the circumstances that cannot and should not be ignored. We may share their desire to simply stand, looking heavenward for a solution, but we will also hear angels or prophets who remind us that prayer is only one part of the equation.
If we have the audacity and courage to pray for the blessings of wisdom, revelation, knowledge of God, enlightened hearts and Christian hope, we will be impelled to action. The really good news is that Christ has promised that as we go to the ends of the Earth, he will be with us until the end of the ages.
[Mary M. McGlone, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, is currently writing the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the United States.]