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Scripture Reflection, May 16: The Ascension of the Lord

May 16, 2010

Scripture Reflection, May 16: The Ascension of the Lord

Scripture Readings:
Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47
Ephesians 1:17-23 or Hebrews 9:24-28;
10:19-23
Luke 24:46-53

In many dioceses of the United States the solemnity of the Ascension is no longer celebrated on Thursday of the 6th week of Easter, but has been moved to the 7th Sunday of Easter, the Sunday that precedes Pentecost. The move has been made so that American Catholics have an opportunity to celebrate this important feast. Isn’t it surprising that Catholics fill the churches every year on Ash Wednesday, but seem to be too busy to celebrate the feast of the Ascension of the Lord on a Thursday? Maybe the problem lies not in the day of the week. Maybe it’s the message that creates a problem for us? The message of Ash Wednesday is “Repent!” which in the final analysis means: “Do something!”, “Change something!” whereas the message of the feast of the Ascension is simply: “Wait!” Is repentance for some reason easier to grasp than waiting?

When I was reflecting about this question I remembered the movie Star Wars. In the fifth episode young Luke Skywalker journeys to the planet Dagobah to train with Jedi Master Yoda, who has lived in hiding since the fall of the Republic. Luke starts his training with Yoda to learn the secrets of the Jedi. But before he can conclude it, Darth Vader lures Skywalker into a trap in the Cloud City of Bespin. Before leaving Dagobah, Yoda begs Luke to stay and finish his training. “You have to wait. You are not ready,” he urges him. But Luke knows that he has a mission to accomplish and leaves his teacher to rescue his friends, knowing that he was on his own and couldn’t rely on the help of the other Jedi.

I was reminded of this scene when I read the Gospel passage for the feast of the Ascension of the Lord. After his resurrection, Jesus explains to his disciples the meaning of his death and resurrection and teaches them what to do. He gives them a mission: To witness his death and resurrection and preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all the nations. Jesus’ disciples must have felt like Luke Skywalker. They were eager to get started, to live out their mission and to save the world. But Jesus reacts like Yoda and asks for patience: “… But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” What would we do? Would we reject the appeal of our teacher and follow our own agenda, as Luke did? Or are we better advised to step back and wait until we are “ready” and filled with the power from on high? I can understand Luke and the disciples, and I understand how hard it is to wait and accept somebody’s help if I am committed to a certain task and feel that I could do it on my own. Why should I wait? I want to do something!

In his letter to the Ephesians Paul explains to the believers why it is important to have the Holy Spirit: The Spirit gives us knowledge of God and makes us understand “the hope that belongs to his call,” the “riches of glory” and the “greatness of his power.” It sounds like a lot of great things, doesn’t it?

As the disciples of Jesus, we too are sent to all the nations to give witness of these things. And “these things” are the mysteries of our faith, namely that the Messiah needed to suffer and rise to bring repentance and forgiveness. We truly need the Holy Spirit to fully understand this mystery that surpasses or human reasoning. There are too many people out there who preach their own agenda, and make up their own “good news.” To be witnesses of our faith, we need to understand the greater picture. And what exactly is the “greater picture” of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to the Father? What exactly is our “mission?”

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes clear that our mission is not about what we do, but who we are: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13:103) As faithful disciples of the Lord, all our activities have to be grounded in love – love of God and love of neighbor. This is the gift of the Holy Spirit that has been poured out in our hearts. This is the core of our faith and the good news that we are called to announce to all the nations.

But we cannot do what God has called us to do without God’s help. That’s why we need to stop once in a while and reflect on whether we have waited sufficiently for the power of the Spirit, or if we are simply working in our own efforts. If we try to bring ahead the church without the loving presence of the Holy Spirit in us, we run the risk of expending a lot of energy and activity without really carrying out our mission.

Whether we are celebrating the feast of the Ascension on a Thursday or a Sunday, let us step back from our activities and our “to-do-list” and ask ourselves if our actions and plans are truly inspired by the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Love, or if we are following our own agenda. Let us pause and wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us on this first Pentecost some 2000 years ago. And let us pray that “our heart (may) be enlightened, that (we) may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe.” (Eph 1:17-19)

Birgit Oberhofer

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