by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the Idente Missionaries.
Europe, May 16, 2021. | Seventh Sunday of Easter. The Ascension of the Lord
Acts of the Apostles 1: 1-11; Ephesians 1: 17-23; Saint Mark 16: 15-20.
The painting that accompanies this reflection is by Eugène Burnand (1850-1921), a prolific and deeply religious Swiss painter. In the scene, where once Jesus had called His disciples out of their boats on the Lake of Galilee to follow Him, He now is sending them out on their own.
The young apostle John focuses intently on that horizon toward which the Master points, his hands clasped in front of him as if calmly awaiting further instruction.
It is as if Jesus is saying, go out and spend your life in service to God, in preaching the gospel I have given you, in living not for today but for tomorrow. Go out there, away from the places where you have already let down your nets.
Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will catch some (Jn 21:6). We cannot be fishers of men if we stay fishing where we are, and we are not likely to catch many souls for Christ if we keep fishing the way we have always done. Jesus is teaching us a new way to live, a new way to share God’s grace, a new way to serve God. Going into the world may take many forms in our lives, but what it always means for everyone called by Christ is that we are to leave the familiar behind and live new lives that are ruled by the Holy Spirit. We are to become something we could not have been if we had stayed in our familiar zone of home and comfort, living generosity in our own way. But for this task, He promised to be with us until the end of time.
His presence is strictly necessary for us to go far in utilizing the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which increasingly fuel our faith, hope and charity. Yes, we need an older brother to inspire us and walk before us. We need a confirmation in deed, not in word, to know that we can go into new territories, walk new paths in life. Let me use a rather striking example from the Old Testament.
Remenber the story of Cain and Abel. Cain is a farmer; Abel, a keeper of sheep, a shepherd. But do not see the story as one reflecting the eternal tensions between farmers and shepherds; the story is so much more. Cain is moved to offer some kind of gift to God in recognition of God’s help in bringing forth fruit from the earth. Gathering some fruit and vegetables, he offers them to God. Abel decides to imitate his brother but also chooses to offer the best of his flock to God. For well-known reasons, due to the different motivation of the two brothers, God pays attention only to Abel’s offering leaving Cain devastated. But, apart from Cain’s moral misery and selfishness, he has an important, though unexpected and unconscious, role in prompting his younger brother Abel to come closer to God. We can now compare ourselves to Abel, having received the grace of an Elder Brother who teaches us to offer every moment to our heavenly Father much more than fruits or animals.
Certainly, Jesus educates in this way our ecstasy, the way to transform our energies to reach out to our neighbor in the most generous, detached and fruitful way. When Jesus defines himself as “the Life”, he is saying something very precise and significant, because in this world we cannot by ourselves unfold all the richness of our being, which really feels imprisoned. As St. Teresa of Avila said: How grievous are these exiles, this prison, these iron shackles by which the soul is trapped! (“I live not within myself”).
When we speak of the ecstatic capacity of the human being, let us keep in mind that not only is it transformed so that we can be deeply united to our neighbor and to the things of the kingdom of heaven, but also our spiritual sensitivity is strengthened so that we do not fall into traps as subtle as a distraction or as heartbreaking and paralyzing as the fear of those who are different or of the surprises that Providence presents to us.
Distractions and fears are real quicksand capable of annulling that authentic flight of our soul that we call ecstasy.
Therefore, Jesus’ essential way of accompanying us is as Redeemer. But not only from the guilt deserved by our sins, but also from slavery to our habits, from the limits of our limited strength to do good and from the continuous threats of the world, the devil and the flesh. It is an active, liberating, redeeming presence.
Jesus himself explains today what are the signs of his presence, which is not limited to giving us emotional comfort or an understanding of his word. Specifically, he mentions what happens to the one who accepts to be a disciple and, therefore, an apostle: Those who have believed will cast out demons and speak new languages; they will pick up snakes and if they drink anything poisonous, they will be unharmed; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will be healed.
We need to properly interpret what this means. Although sometimes there are prodigious and striking signs that accompany the apostle’s acts, this is something very unusual. For example, we all remember how Jesus made a terrified Peter walk on the waters. All these signs belong to the traditional biblical language and have in common their character of novelty, surprise and the fact that they are difficult to explain without divine intervention.
Let us note that, by making his presence felt, God uses in a fruitful and creative way the best of the energy of human beings, empowered us to go beyond our fears and limitations.
A story is told about a little boy and his father. It happened that the father of the boy mandated the son to plug in the electric kettle for him, so that he could take his hot bath when he returns from back from some shopping.
The boy did as the father had instructed. So the boy was left alone in the house with the plugged-in electric kettle. Suddenly, there was smoke coming out from the outlets of the multi-storey building. The neighbours saw this and started shouting fire, fire, fire!!! The boy was still in the sitting room still ignorant of the smoke which was as a result of the fire that has entirely consumed the kitchen. He heard the cries from the neighbourhood, and ran out to the balcony to discover what actually the problem was. It baffled him as he could not see the floor because everywhere was totally smoked.
He ran back inside the house but discovered that the fire was already making its way to the sitting room via the passage. The concerned neighbours were shouting his name and were saying, Freddy, jump down. We are here to catch you. Freddy who was now simply imprisoned at the balcony was so afraid of such a height that he refused to jump down. The father who now had seen the scenario from a distance ran so fast and then shouted: Freddy, it’s Dad, jump down, I am here to catch you. When Freddy heard the voice of the father, he became less fearful and as if fresh energy had entered into him, he jumped down and very luckily for him, fell in the hands of the father.
Freddy was afraid to jump down when he heard the voices of others but he was empowered to do so when he heard that of his father. The father’s presence empowered him to go beyond his fears and limitations.
It is often insisted that the Ascension represents the beginning of the proclamation of the Gospel by the disciples of Jesus, and indeed, that is how the Gospel of St. Mark that we heard today ends.
But the historical fact of the Ascension has a permanent consequence in the life of every apostle: the signs that Christ promised would accompany them.
Of course, these are not spectacular signs, such as a display of magical powers. These signs refer to the victory of the Spirit of the Gospel over the spirit of greed and pride of the world.
* Healing the sick and driving out demons is not the healing of a sickness of the body, to which many human beings are nobly dedicated, but the power to transmit the necessary peace to those who suffer, even though they will soon depart from this world. If the forces of death are now dominated, it means that the Risen Christ is alive and present in the world.
* Speaking new languages refers to the ability of the disciples to present old truths in new ways, ways which are more understandable to people of our time. It also represents the invincible expressive power of Christian witness: In a violent world, the disciples live out and preach peace. Among those who hate, the disciples act in love. In the face of greed, the disciples give from their poverty. Among the proud, the disciples remain humble.
* The victory over serpents and poisons (which represent all that is impure) is another sign of the redeeming presence of Christ, which allows us to live with purity “the true religion” in the two dimensions described by James: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1: 27).
We cannot forget that the strength of these signs will be dwarfed by what the angels announce in the First Reading, the triumphant return of Jesus, who will not arrive simply to be acclaimed, but to allow us to live an eternity at his side.
Yes, the Ascension of the Lord is a great consolation to all who are afraid of death or afraid of dying. Let us, therefore, encourage one another to remember that Jesus descended, died, resurrected and ascended into heaven for us. Let us believe and live in the hope of one day being with him in God’s kingdom forever. In this perspective we understand why the Evangelist Luke says that after the Ascension the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy (24: 52) what had happened was not really a separation, the Lord’s permanent absence: on the contrary, they were then certain that the Crucified-Risen One was alive and that in him the gates of eternal life, had been opened to humanity for ever.
This is a spiritual impression that we have in our mystical experience, an authentic and continuous Spiration, a feeling of the dynamic company of the divine persons, especially of the breath of the Holy Spirit, which manifests itself in the peace (Beatitude) of the one who knows he is continually forgiven, continually chosen, continually reborn. This authentic harmony with the divine persons allows us to live a spiritual dream, nothing like a daydream, rather an Aspiration that means doing everything in the presence and in the name of God, whether it is a small gesture of love or the most intense effort that life demands of us.
In the meantime, we must continue to strive to live in a state of prayer (or continuous prayer), because, as St. Teresa of Avila used to say: We are always in the presence of God, yet it seems to me that those who pray are in His presence in a very different sense.