Feast of the Ascension
Each Fourth Thursday in November we celebrate a harvest festival of gratitude, modeling the pilgrims and Native Americans of 1621, in Plymouth, Massachusetts. And each July Fourth, we celebrate our Independence from the British Empire. But forty days after Easter, if you were to ask some Christians what we’re ritualizing or celebrating (according to their responses) it sounds more like a science fiction movie… a blend of Superman, (or Star Wars: where Luke Skywalker completes his mission, saves the Empire, and returns to the Force…) and the old Jimmy Webb song (5th Dimension), “Up, up and away… in my beautiful…”!
Allow me a dangerous detour for just a moment. Many people think religion is the cause of global conflicts. But a look through history will generally reveal that most wars are rooted in one tragic, and yet fundamentally banal cause — the drive to control limited resources. I dare say that, whether it be the Israeli-Palestine conflict, the third Crusade, or World War I, it usually comes down to one group wanting something that another groups wants. Yes, religion often makes a handy, and often more palatable pretext for this conflict, but that’s because appealing to a higher power and some abstract idea of righteousness is easier on the conscience than appealing to greed.
At the risk of sounding disrespectful, even blasphemous, our conception of a “theology of Ascension,” …in fact, our notion of Resurrection, Real Presence, or the Communion of Saints… and many other doctrines, principles, and guidelines of our Catholic faith… are mistaken and erroneous, too. I believe it’s the reason that lots of folks are leaving. Sure, some folks are simply lazy or prefer to golf on Sunday morning, but maybe we should look deeper.
If today’s feast of the Ascension is not about Jesus soaring upwards, what IS it about? I begin by saying what it ISN’T. The Ascension is not so much an historical event, it’s a theological statement. In a parallel way, remember the feeding of multitude, (deserted place, late…) when the disciples come to Jesus and tell him to dismiss the crowd (Matthew 14:16)? Jesus’ response is provocative and challenging: “YOU give them something to eat!” Rather than get lost in mental gymnastics and literal interpretations of Sacred Scripture, we might ask what God is asking of us today.
Secondly, we usually think of faith as an attitude of trust or belief on our part. We trust the Word of God, we believe its message. The Ascension is the expression of a different kind of faith: God’s faith in us. Jesus concludes his ministry with that profound discourse: “I thank you, Father… I have completed the work on earth you had me do.” In the midst of continuing violence, wars, disease, injustice, poverty, Jesus removes himself physically from earth, making room for his followers. He trusted them, believed in them. He had faith that, once they received the Spirit, once they were filled with God’s Spirit, they would work effectively for the coming the Kingdom. Ascension. That’s far greater than gliding away in my beautiful balloon!
Fr. Jack Conley, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.