(By Fr. Dexter Brerton)
Ascension challenges us to stay in the city so that we can be clothed with Power from on High
First some ‘background’ to today’s feast. The term ‘ascension’ refers to Jesus’ being ‘carried up to heaven (Luke 24: 51) or ‘lifted up’ forty days after his resurrection. (Acts 1: 9) There are intimations or prefigurations of the ascension in the books of the Old Testament. In the book of Psalms, the psalmist in Ps 24: 3 sates: “Who shall go up to the mountain of YHWH?” In another place the psalmist writes “God goes up with shouts of acclaim” (Ps 47: 5) Both of these psalms therefore contain the idea of God, or someone else rising into heaven. More interesting however is the ascension of Enoch who was ‘taken up’ by God (Gen 5: 24 Heb 11: 5). Then there is also the ascension of Elijah who went up to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2 1-18).
Our annual celebration of Easter, leads the average Christian to believe that the Easter event (the story of the movement of Jesus from suffering and death to glory with God) as a series of discrete, separate events separated by intervals of time. First there was Holy Thursday and the first Eucharist, there was Good Friday when Christ died, Gloria Saturday, Christ was in the tomb, on Easter Sunday he rose from the dead, forty days after he ascended into heaven and ten days after, or fifty days after the resurrection, he sent the Holy Spirit. In fact, if we closely read the text of the New Testament, we do not have a uniform picture. Acts says that Jesus ascended into heaven after appearing for ‘many’ or ‘forty’ days. On the other hand, both Luke 24 and Mark 16 present the ascension as taking place on the evening of his resurrection. Whatever the chronology of events, theologically speaking, the feast of the ascension is to be celebrated as a ‘leave-taking’ of Jesus and the beginning of a new kind of presence. The feast is also a promise to us that where Jesus has gone, we, one day will follow.
Now the Lectio:
‘And now I am sending down to you what the Father has promised. Stay in the city then, until you are clothed with the power from on high.’
Reading these words from today’s Gospel took me back to this story that is frequently played out in our local parishes:
“You have no plan!” shouted the irate parishioner to the old parish priest. Maisie was quite anxious for father to “roll out” his plans to save their parish which was stale, moribund and losing people to the “small churches” (evangelical sects). There were so many programmes out there in the church to wake up the people, but instead the old priest just seemed to take his time, just looking and observing.
Our local church like the wider population in Trinidad and Tobago is often riddled with anxiety because we want salvation on a platter and we want it now. In the rush to fill the vacuum of serious thought, we rush to import canned wisdom from abroad. One sometimes gets the impression that every programme under the sun is being tried here, often in the absence of analysis, understanding or context. Much of our public discourse is informed by anecdotal evidence and for the most part, many of us in the Trini Catholic Church seem to lack the patience to do the kind of research that we need to truly understand what is going on in our parishes and the spiritual problems that people face today. We rush to import ‘wisdom from abroad’ because we do not wish to ‘stay in the city’ and face up to the numerous challenges which lie at the heart of Trinidadian Catholic life – the lack of vocations, the crisis of faith in our schools, the ineffectiveness of our evangelization programmes, so that most of the prison population is made up of baptized Catholics, the relative lack of involvement of many Catholic parishes in social issues facing their own community. All this we will face if we stay in the city. James Baldwin once said: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced’. The city also a place of positives: the tremendous efforts being made in the vocations ministry by the ‘Generation S’ programme, the sterling contribution made by Catholic elementary schools to cultural life, and the interesting initiatives made by the institutional church on behalf of the disenfranchised, like our Archbishop’s recent call for pardon for non-violent offenders.
As individuals, we are also tempted to ‘flee the city.’ So many of us refuse to allow ourselves to come face to face with our sin and weakness. We refuse to face our prejudices, our addictions, our fascination with wealth, our selfish lifestyle which makes us unwilling to accept the gift of children and so on. The Lord invites us to sincere contrition, to prayer, to conversion. The Lord invites us to open our hearts to the truth, to stay in the city so that we may truly be ‘clothed with the power from on high’ the Spirit of Jesus who blows where he wills and who can transform and heal our lives.