(By Fr. Dexter Brereton)
Biblical scholars today are fairly unanimous that the original ending of the Gospel of Mark took place in Mark 16: 8 which goes: “And the women came out and ran away from the tomb because they were frightened out of their wits; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” They also believe that Mark had a good reason for ending his gospel so abruptly but this was not always the case. Sometime in the Second century, Christian scholars added the so-called longer ending onto the Gospel of Mark from verses 9 to 20 which contains details about appearances of the risen Christ to his disciples. Well today’s Gospel reading of the Ascension is taken from this section. From this point on, right up to the feast of Pentecost, the Church will begin to answer for us the question, “How does the risen Jesus remain a present reality in the Church given the fact that he has returned to the Father”?
In Trinidadian culture, saying goodbye can be a heart-rending experience. Many years ago as a boy I loved to go to the airport. For those of us who remember our old airport well there was a waving gallery. And there in the waving gallery and downstairs in the passenger terminal, a scene was played out over and over again as families came to the airport in large numbers to say goodbye to their loved ones. It was an interesting scene, the little ones gripped by excitement would be running all over the place, the older adults spoke quietly in groups or paced the floor nervously. At the centre of attention however, was the young man or young woman heading off to Canada or to the United States or England to do their studies or to look for work. Very often the grandmother or grandfather of the family would come along to the airport. More often than not, granny’s eyes would be bright with tears as she held her grandchild one last time in her arms, her chest heaving with pride and sorrow. She did not know if she would ever see him again. Finally, after many anxious moments, the flight would be called and the family member would board the aircraft. Long after takeoff, they would stare off into the skies in the direction in which the plane took off, their eyes still misty with tears.
One would not be surprised to learn if in the first day or so after their son or daughter’s departure that the family passed through much anguish. What is striking about today’s reading however is that the attitude of the disciples at the ascension is a study in contrast. In the first reading it says that after Jesus’ departure: “They worshiped him then went back to Jerusalem full of joy…” In the account of the ascension taken from Mark’s Gospel, one gets the impression that with Jesus’ departure all of a sudden, rather than becoming withdrawn and depressed, the disciples become very busy indeed: “And so the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven: there at the right hand of God he took his place, while they going out, preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word by the signs that accompanied it.”
Yes, the departure of Jesus is not a time for sorrow or nostalgia. We return to the world with joy, and a sense of mission. We have work to do, preaching everywhere. We preach the Gospel in season and out of season. As Pope Francis reminds us, the Christian life is not a beauty Spa. I would add, being a Christian is not a popularity contest. We should remind ourselves of this everyday that we live. People will oppose us, not everyone will be happy to see us. Our last Archbishop once said interestingly at an ordination that he had been thrown out of more hospital rooms than he could remember. But preach everywhere we must. We make a nuisance of ourselves for God.
Pope Benedict in his book on Jesus of Nazareth gives us some idea on why Jesus’ departure is not a time of sorrow or withdrawal. He says: “Ascension does not mean departure into a remote region of the cosmos but rather, the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy.” The cause of our joy is also that Jesus from his place ‘at God’s right hand’ watches over and directs the church’s work. The phrase ‘at God’s right hand’ needs also to be properly understood. It is not some far off place where God has set up his throne. God does not occupy a space alongside other spaces. God is within creation but is not really a part of it. God is present to creation as its Creator and Lord. For Jesus to be at God’s right hand therefore is to be wherever God is, in God’s dominion over all time and all space. Let us rejoice in Jesus who today is acclaimed the all-powerful, almighty one, God-made-flesh for us. Amen.