There's a scene in the movie Queen of Katwe where the young Ugandan chess prodigy flies on a plane for the first time. As they ascend above the clouds, she asks her coach: “Is this heaven?” He replies, “No, heaven is higher.”
This little interchange speaks volumes about what we imagine heaven to be. Heaven is portrayed as a place in the clouds, above us and “other-worldly.” When we ponder ascension, we see how powerful these images of heaven are in our human psyche.
In the reading from Acts, Jesus is lifted up, raised up into the clouds as he returns to his Father in heaven. If we were to read the story of the ascension in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, we would again hear of Jesus being lifted up, up and away from his disciples. It's interesting, then, that Matthew's Gospel takes a more this-worldly approach. In Matthew, the focus is not on Jesus being lifted up into the clouds, but on the commissioning of the disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Matthew's Gospel clearly challenges us to move from being passive recipients of God's grace to active conduits of God's mercy.
In some ways the ascension is a bit like a high school graduation. The students (disciples) have spent four years in school learning from Jesus, their teacher and friend. It's been an intense journey. They've walked with him and witnessed miracles, they've seen him crucified and rise again from the dead. But, in all this, they have been relatively passive recipients of the experience. Now the rubber hits the road. Jesus is ascending into heaven and they are being called to take action. It's time for them to graduate and spread the good news to the nations!
In Matthew's Gospel consolation and commissioning walk hand in hand. First, Jesus consoles the disciples. He assures them the Spirit will be with them until the end of time. But that consolation quickly becomes an invitation to share that message of joy with those who most need to hear it. This proclamation of joy lies at the heart of evangelization. Proclaiming the good news is not so much about making sure everyone looks and thinks and acts like we do, but much more about sharing the joy of God's mercy and consolation with all of humanity.
Pope Francis, in his Angelus message on Jan. 26, 2014, said it best: “Jesus teaches us that the Good News, which he brings, is not reserved to one part of humanity, it is to be communicated to everyone. It is a proclamation of joy destined for those who are waiting for it, but also for all who perhaps are no longer waiting for anything and haven't even the strength to seek and to ask.”
The Feast of the Ascension, then, asks us to ponder what exactly is at the source of our joy as Christians. Our encounter with a God who-is-with-us, Emmanuel, through all of life's ups and downs, changes our demeanour. Rather than coming down from the mountain of the ascension dejected and grieving, the disciples know the Spirit will animate them as they journey forth into the world. We, too, are called to embrace that same Spirit and bring forth a message of God's mercy into the lives of those around us.
This proclamation of joy is no trite, Pollyanna-esque sound bite. It's a hard-earned act of faith that emerges from our journey with Jesus through his life, death and resurrection. It's the assurance that comes from knowing death and evil will never have the last word, despite whatever the current level of geopolitical or personal angst we may be experiencing. Jesus' invitation to “go out and make disciples of all nations” is about claiming hope as our birthright as baptized sons and daughters of God, and then sharing that hope with those most in need.
The ascension is less about imagining a heavenly place above the clouds and more about putting our discipleship into action. It's about fully embracing the consolation of God's ever-abiding presence in our lives and then setting forth to share the joy. The ascension invites us to actively become conduits of God's mercy to all of humanity. Who in our lives, then, most needs to hear God's message of consolation today?
Rompré is the director of Mission and Ministry at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon.