Why Stand Staring?
“Why are you standing there looking at the sky?”
The two men dressed in white seem to be asking a silly question to the Apostles, who have just watched their Teacher and Friend ascend into the heavens. This is not something that happens every day! Where else would they be looking at that point? And yet, their question actually begs another: Why are you looking up there, when you are here and clearly have some work to do?
The Ascension of the Lord is not so much a celebration of “Jesus leaving us” as it is about “waiting for ‘the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak … the Holy Spirit’.” In fact, it is this time of waiting and prayerful anticipation that serves as the model for every novena that we pray – particularly this novena to the Holy Spirit, in preparation for Pentecost. Jesus returns to the Father so that they can send the Spirit upon the Church; and this is a reason for celebration. But that Holy Spirit is going to be poured upon us for a purpose – so that we may be driven into the world to proclaim what God has done in Jesus Christ. And that might be the scary part of this mystery.
Life was easy when we just tagged along with Jesus while He healed the sick, cured the lame, and forgave people’s sins. What is implied by our celebration today is that Jesus now empowers – and expects – us to do exactly the same thing. That is why Christ encourages us with His promise of the Spirit, who will accompany us and empower us. The Apostles certainly needed this; so do we. Pope St. Leo the Great pointed this out in one of his homilies about the mystery of the Ascension:
Even the blessed apostles, though they had been strengthened by so many miracles and instructed by so much teaching, took fright at the cruel suffering of the Lord’s passion and could not accept His resurrection without hesitation. Yet they made such progress through His ascension that they now found joy in what had terrified them before, They were able to fix their minds on Christ’s divinity as He sat at the right hand of His Father, since what was presented to their bodily eyes no longer hindered them from turning all their attention to the realization that He had not left His Father when He came down to earth, nor had He abandoned His disciples when He ascended to heaven. … For while His glorified body retained the same nature, the faith of those who believed in Him was now summoned to heights.
The truth of the Ascension is that now our Lord, who shares our human nature, presents that humanity to the Father and He blesses it and strengthens us. Through the Spirit of the Father and the Son, we are enflamed with apostolic love and zeal to share the message of God’s love with all nations. Jesus is clear about this mission: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
Here is the mission of the Church. Perhaps this frightens us. Perhaps we hear these words and believe they are meant for someone else. Perhaps we don’t think we are up to it. We know our limitations, our failures, and our sins. How could I, with all my flaws, do any of the things that Jesus says His Church will do?
Well, as He prepares to ascend, Luke tells us, He tells the Apostles (and us) that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” and “these signs will accompany those who believe.” Are we ready for this power? Are we praying for this power? Are we waiting for the promise of the Father about which Jesus speaks? Because that is how we will receive it!
The Ascension is not about the day Jesus left us behind. It is about the day that He empowered us to share His work. It is about the day that He promised the Gift of the Holy Spirit. This Sunday and next Sunday are intimately connected and must be celebrated together. The Holy Spirit is coming upon us and we need to be ready, because we have work to do!
So, why are you standing there looking at the sky?”