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The Ascension of the Lord: Reading God’s signs

Acts 1, 1-11; Ephesians 1, 17-23; Mark 16, 15-20.

In today’s feast of the Ascension, the occurrence of Jesus being taken from the disciples and lifted up to sit with the Father in heaven creates that intermediate state of uncertainty between our being bound to the earth where we are called to build God’s kingdom and our call to contemplate heaven as our ultimate vocation.

Action and contemplation may be two irreconcilable extremes, even perhaps contradictory. We tend to see action in terms of concreteness and contemplation as almost amounting to alienation. Way back in the 1960s, Thomas Merton, one of the major contemplatives of modern times, had published his classic Contemplation in a World of Action. It was written at a time when, in the wake of a cultural upheaval, with a strong refusal to be conventional, some were even making a moral virtue out of violent revolution. In that context, Merton daringly intervened, viewing contemplation as “a certain protest against the organised and dehumanising routines of a worldly life built around gain for its own sake”.

We read from Acts today that the more the disciples had the feeling that the end of Jesus’s time with them was nearing, the more anxious they became, asking whether the time had come and whether he was going to restore the kingdom to Israel. They reflect a feeling of a mission not accomplished, of something they had believed in and which for them was not materialising.

It is the impatience of our faith. It is one of modern day’s temptations to be impatient, to see waiting as mainly a passive thing, almost a waste of time. We are always in a hurry; we want things done. What is not yet accomplished overshadows what has already been accomplished. We concentrate more on what we crave for and lose sight of what is already achieved.

We actually live on this borderline which in the Scriptures today constitutes the shift from the time of Jesus to the time of the Spirit. The ending of St Mark’s gospel is especially significant when he highlights how the disciples went out to preach and “the Lord was working with them, confirming their word by the signs that accompanied it”.

In the drive to be as accountable as we can be, and in our way of measuring how efficacious our mission is, we can easily bypass how the Lord is working with us and the signs accompanying our word and confirming it. Those signs can be varied, silent, hidden, but very real, and possibly enriching and making complete the lives of many.

The real space for experiencing God’s power and glory, where, as St Paul writes to Ephesians, we need “the spirit of wisdom and perception of what is revealed is not a hermitage or fleeing the world”. It is precisely in the midst of the turbulences that make the journey uncertain and the anxieties that leave us breathless that God’s power and real presence is normally hidden and waiting to be revealed.

We have to beware not to exchange our own glory with God’s glory. For so long we christianised culture and made ourselves comfortable living with laws that favoured God’s own laws and seeking to sacralise what was for us profane. We even considered that to be a destination point, the realisation of God’s kingdom on Earth.

But God’s kingdom is of a totally different nature. The signs that accompany and confirm the proclamation of Jesus are not necessarily the crosses on the walls of our offices. The crusades were not necessarily God’s kingdom being established on Earth. They were rather our way of imposing God’s kingdom, not necessarily how God meant things to be and to happen.

When we build on earthly kingdoms, on how we see and imagine things, we risk building sand castles which easily collapse or dissolve with the tsunamis of daily life. The signs that witness for God’s glory and power are signs that build and heal people in their wholeness, eventually impacting on the outer society and spaces.

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