Ars praedicandi: Ascension Sunday, Year B, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

During the church year, we celebrate a series
of what are called “the feasts of the Lord.”

Many of these feasts are relatively easy to comprehend
for they often recall some pivotal event in the life of Christ
such as his birth,
his presentation in the temple,
or his baptism.

Some of these feasts, however
are not as readily understood
such as the feast of the Transfiguration
or the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.
Similarly, I would suggest that today’s feast of the Ascension
might be a little more difficult to understand
than feasts of his birth or his baptism.

Part of the challenge in cracking this feast
might be due to the fact that Jesus’ Ascension
is not reported in all of the gospels:
it is not in the gospel of John
and it is not in the gospel of Matthew

It does occur in the gospel we read today from Mark,
but virtually all biblical scholars would content
that this 16th chapter was not original to Mark
and was added in the 2nd century
while Mark was originally written in the first century

It actually occurs twice in the writings of Luke:
in Luke’s gospel
and the Acts of the Apostles – our first reading today;
but these two tellings have different timelines.

In the gospel of Luke, the Ascension seems to occur
on the day of Jesus’ resurrection.
But in Acts, it takes place 40 days after that event
which would place it on a Thursday.

Thus, as some of us remember,
we used to celebrate “Ascension” Thursday
which was a holy day of obligation
and should have taken place 3 days ago.

So what is to be believed in this gospel puzzle
and what do we make of a feast
that seems to suggest that Jesus’ body
is floating somewhere out there in outer space?

I mean, we’ve sent astronauts up there
and they haven’t found it,
the international space station hasn’t bumped into it,
and the Hubble telescope,
for all the brilliant pictures it has sent back from space,
hasn’t photographed it either.

Because of the mixed biblical evidence
and the challenging nature of an ascending body,
some preachers actually choose to ignore the feast.

Long ago a now-forgotten blogger irreverently wrote:

Ascension is a mystery to me. The whole idea of Jesus ascending through the air into heaven is hard for someone who has seen the pictures of earth from space taken by the Astronauts. Instead, I think of Glenda in the movie The Wizard of Oz, rising up into the air in her bubble with all the Munchkins waving and shouting “Goodbye, Goodbye” in their little squeaky voices.

She was not alone; another, reflecting on our first reading, wrote:

It’s like a bad B-movie … the camera cuts to an overhead shot of the apostles – dazed, mouths agape, like Gomer Pyle looking up at a skyscraper for the first time. Shazam, he’s gone; they all stood there looking up as if at Cape Canaveral for an Apollo space shot. We can almost hear them all say. “Our leader is gone. Now what?”

That comment reminds me of a now-defunct ritual
that Catholics used to enact on this feast.
Some may remember that after the reading of the gospel
an acolyte would snuff out the paschal candle,
a symbolic confirmation that Jesus was now gone from the earth.

When I was a kid, that ritual always left me wondering
“so now what, since Jesus has left the planet?”
As an aging adult my theology questions are similar:
so what does this feast say about our relationship with God?
And how does it move us forward on our spiritual journey?

In years past I have answered that question
by suggesting that Jesus needed to leave
so that the disciples could take up the mission
in building God’s reign,
but I have often wondered if there was something more.

Like millions of others around the world
for the past few weeks, I have been following the story
of the Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity
the first powered and controlled flight on another world.

As you probably know,
Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars on the Perseverance rover
and arrived on the red planet on February 18th.
Once the rover reached a suitable launch location,
it released Ingenuity to the surface
to begin a series of test flights.

Its first flight was April 19th,
climbing to about 10 feet, hovering a bit,
completing a turn,
and then landing.

More recently it completed its 5th successful flight,
climbing over 30 feet,
flying over 400 feet,
and coming to rest on a new landing site.

These successes came in the face of incredible challenge
as Ingenuity had to overcome dangerously thin air –
less than 1% of the earth’s atmosphere –
extreme cold –
plummeting to minus 100 degrees F at night –
and flawed flight software
that required both a fix and reinstalment:
a 194-million-mile service call!

Besides being fascinated, even awed by the science here,
I have been thinking about Ingenuity
while trying to imagine the significance of today’s feast
for myself, this congregation
and a global community
struggling with pandemics and violence,
poverty and oppression.

The juxtaposition of Ingenuity and Ascension
made me wonder whether Jesus was the original manifestation
of the ingenuity of God
in which Jesus was delivered to earth
not by a rover named perseverance,
but through the cooperation of a young woman,
whose perseverance through suffering and loss
into her own final glory
is the wonder we call the Blessed Virgin.

Jesus as the ingenuity of God
faced his own multiple obstacles.
The sometimes-thin atmosphere
of human goodness,
the plummeting temperature
of human tolerance,
and the flawed software of humanity
damaged by original sin.

And so God initiated a holy reboot,
this time from the edges of eternity
intended to enable humanity to fly, to soar,
to overcome the obstacles
that prevent us from ascending
to the full height of our dignity and blessedness.

That holy reboot was the ingenuity of the Only Begotten,
who took on all of those obstacles,
who assumed our flawed nature
and taught us that even in the thin air
of our greed and pettiness and insecurities,
we could rise together as a community of the holy.
He showed us that his rejection,
his suffering,
and his scars did not ground him
but actually gave him lift …
ascending with a body marked by crucifixion,
anticipating our own ascent
through suffering, even death
in our journey to holiness.

One of the tasks of NASA’s Ingenuity
is to serve as a robotic scout,
surveying the Martian terrain from above,
eventually enabling astronauts to explore Mars
by alerting them to dangerous obstacles
and safe routes for their explorations.

That mission helps me reimagine
the importance of today’s feast
as both a support and encouragement
for our individual and collective development
as God’s holy people.

It is common to imagine the feast of the Ascension
with befuddled disciples gaping heavenward
as apparently directionless,
awaiting the descent of God’s Spirit
so they can figure out their new earthly mission.

However, another way to envision this feast
is to imagine Jesus going on ahead of us,
not leaving us behind,
but drawing us forward.
Not abandoning us to find our own way,
but following him into an eternal way.

Though obviously a sophisticated piece of engineering,
I love the fact that NASA’s Ingenuity
is designed with open-source software
that required the partnership of something like
12,000 collaborators
to get Ingenuity off the ground.

This was not the secretive plan of a handful of geniuses,
but the collective work of a global community
of engineers and scientists
who together helped Ingenuity achieve lift-off.

The Christian community is its own form
of open-source software,
an open-source kind of spirituality
that is constructed through the collective partnership
of believers and collaborators
not only throughout the world,
but throughout human history.

Jesus, like the cosmos itself,
is moving out ahead of us,
coaching us and coaxing us,
to ascend – to achieve what Eastern Christians call
deification.

The English priest and poet Malcolm Guite
captures something of this rising into the thin air of eternity,
something of this journey of deification
anticipated in Jesus’ own Ascension, as he writes:

We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we ourselves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed.

May this cosmic feast awake in us
our own baptismal ingenuity
as we are transformed into
a dynamic cloud of witnesses,
finding strength in our own weakness,
singing the darkness around us into light,
as we are taken up with him in the very heart of things
through Christ our Lord.

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