Homily for the Feast of the Ascension

May 20, 2007

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Hebrews 9:24-29, 10:19-23; Luke 24:46-53)

“They returned to Jerusalem filled with joy.”

The liturgy for the feast of the completion of Jesus’ earthly mission is all about his going and returning—and about anxiety and joyful assurance.

If we were to read today’s first reading from Acts and the passage from Luke’s Gospel in their proper order we would reverse the sequence in which they come in the liturgy. Luke’s writing is really one work in two parts: first the Gospel telling of Jesus’ life till his departure, and then Acts taking up the story there and continuing through the first years of the early church’s mission. But we’ll have to do with the way the readings are given to us.

The Acts speaks of Jesus instructing his disciples for 40 days, and we know that that’s not a journalist’s chronological number of days. In the Israelite mind forty was the symbolic number for completion. There was the forty years of the Israelites wandering in the desert; then Jesus’ own forty days of preparation for his mission. Now Luke is telling us, in effect, that the risen Jesus has fully formed and prepared his disciples to go out on mission. He has given them all they need. It was their novitiate, really. Just as these past forty days since Easter have been our period of deepened formation, so that we can be ready for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit next week on Pentecost—a new burst of energy for our mission.

But there was a big question that hung over the Apostles, as it did over the early church: “Where will Jesus be? When will he come back to us? Are we going to be on our own? Will he leave us orphans?” They were anxious, unsure of themselves.

John has Jesus at the last supper dealing with their sadness and concern that he was going away from them. Jesus tells them “Fear not! Let not your hearts be troubled. I am going away for a little while and then I will return and take you with he so that where I am you also will be.” He makes that amazing statement: “If you really loved me you would rejoice that I am going away, because if I don’t I won’t be able to send my Spirit.” They are to rejoice at Jesus’ absence? We need to hold onto that, because we’ll return to it later.

But here we are in the story in Acts. Even after he has shown them “in many convincing ways that he was alive” they’re still concerned. Are you going to reveal the kingdom now? They’re still anxious. How long without him? (I think that may of us secretly are under the illusion that ‘if I only lived at the same time as Jesus I’d really be holy.’)

And that worry about the absence of Jesus ran all through the early church. They were constantly trying to figure out the “end times.”

At the beginning of his absence some of them seem to have interpreted his saying about “a brief time” to mean his return was going to happen at any moment. In fact St. Paul discovered just a few years after Jesus’ departure that people in the church of the Thessalonians had concluded that it didn’t make sense to invest yourself in present agendas because it was all going to be over real soon anyway. Why work at anything? He’s about to come and take us all to heaven with him. They were happy to just hang of—and contribute nothing to the life of the community at a time when everybody was sharing the load of keeping life going. Paul had to shake them up. Really, when you come down to it, his message to them was, “Hey you guys, you gotta get off your duffs and work!” Only gradually as the years past did the church have to re-think that ‘little while.’ God’s clock doesn’t work like ours.

But that same worry and anxiety kept coming back again all through the church’s history down to today. When is he coming back?

Again and again in every era some crazy ‘prophet’ would arise and declare that he knew the actual date. They would predict it: Jesus will return in 1536 on Christmas day! Then when that didn’t work, it would be 1867 on Good Friday—or on the Millennium day right after the evening news!

There are people who love to delve into the book of Revelation, which is a book of poetry and poetic images, and read it as if it were the Da Vinci Code. When I was a younger person they were sure that two beasts in revelation were clearly Hitler and Stalin. Maybe today it’s Saddam and Hugo Chavez. And you know, those 12 pillars in the New Jerusalem are clearly the last 12 Republican presidents . . . Today they’re all excited about ‘the rapture’ that is going to whoosh us all up to the clouds. The Left Behind books of Tim LeHaye sell millions of copies.

What’s fascinating is that Jesus says flat-out when the disciples ask him about the day or the hour, “Of that time no one knows, except the Father.” Jesus himself tells us he doesn’t know and has to trust the Father’s faithfulness. He’s really telling them, and us, that that’s not our business. It’s not where we should be investing our energies. It’s a dead end.

What’s going on in all this stuff? What’s it about spiritually?

It’s all a form of avoidance. Evasion of the real work of the Kingdom. Just stay focused on this sensational titillation and we won’t have to think about the hard work of loving our neighbor and challenging the principalities and powers of this world.

Jesus’ instructions to his disciples as he is leaving earth, however, are very down-to-earth. “Here’s what I want you to do. Go back into the city. (The city, Jerusalem, represents our normal surroundings, the places where we are to love and care for one another and be Good News to one another: our homes and neighborhoods and places of work; our real cities.) Go there, go back to your regular routine. Be good Jews. Go to the Temple and pray. And remain there. Wait. Be on the lookout for when I tell you it’s time to go forth to the next stage of your responsibility.” It’s really the same message of the two angels at the time of his departure: “What are you doing staring up to the sky? He’s not coming from there.” That’s a seduction.


Jesus had proven to them that he was alive. And now he shows them (and us) how he’s going to be still with them: through his very own Spirit—the same Spirit which animated him—poured out into our hearts. Ezechiel had presented the promise of the Lord: “I will place in you a new heart and a new spirit” and now that promise is to be fulfilled.

And what happened? How did they respond? Remember what Jesus had said in the upper room? If you love me you will rejoice. Now he’s gone away--but that’s OK! Luke tells us that they returned to Jerusalem filled with joy! Jerusalem, the same place where they had been filled with anxiety, where they had worried about being left orphans.

Their formation really was complete, they were beginning to get it.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews sums it up. Jesus has completed the work once and for all. There is no need of further anxious offering of ritual sacrifices. When he does return it’s not going to be to take away sin—that’s been done— but to “bring salvation to those who are eagerly looking for him.”

So there’s the issue for us. Are we going to build our spirituality on the words of Jesus? Are we going to be on the lookout for all the ways the Lord is actually present in front of us, challenging us in the form of neighbors who need our love and care? Or are we going to build it our lives on The National Enquirer?

Let’s just try to take Jesus at his word. Let’s go back into our own Jerusalem and be alert to the Lord who is present there. And let’s expect that his Spirit will show us the job we are called to do.