Why Are You Just Standing There, Staring at the Sky? | Ascension Sunday 2021

Detail, “The Ascension”, Rembrandt, 1636 – oil on canvas.

Happy Ascension!

You can almost picture it: the disciples who had known Jesus and followed him for years – who really thought he was dead forever but were astonished when he appeared again alive in their midst – were back in Galilee where it all began. Jesus had told them over and over that he would return to the Father, and that this return would be necessary for the Kingdom to come to fruition. He promised that he was going away in order to prepare a place for them, and that he would come back and reunite the whole world with the Father. In the mean times, he’d given them work to do: “Go, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt. 28:19-20)

The disciples yearned for the coming of the Kingdom. They craved it. Just before the Ascension, one of them asked Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” (Acts 1:6) He politely declines, aware that to some degree, despite everything, they still have yet to realize who is standing before them. His final words to the disciples are clear: “You will receive power, and the Holy Spirit will come to you, and you will be my witnesses now before all the earth.” Then, Luke tells us, “as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” (Acts 1:8-9)

Then…they just stand there, seemingly dumbfounded, staring into the sky. To their credit, if my best friend had died, risen from the dead, and then disappeared into a giant cloud I think my first reaction would be similar. But, right on cue, messengers dressed all in white appear and bring the disciples back to reality: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus…will return in the same way!” (Acts 1:11) In other words, “What are you doing just standing there? You heard the man: go! Be his witnesses!”

And so begins the age of the disciples. Jesus had laid the ground work, taught them everything they needed to know, and promised that he would be with them through it all. From this moment onward, it was their turn to bear witness to the risen Christ and to bring the good news of salvation to the whole world.

The Acts of the Apostles tell us that the disciples immediately began to organize themselves into a community where they devoted themselves to common life and prayer, and in that context set out to elect a suitable replacement for Judas, choosing a man of faith named Matthias by casting lots.

This time between the Ascension of Jesus and his Second Coming is a privileged time for us in 2021, just as it was for the first disciples. By taking seriously the command of Jesus to “be my witnesses” and to “teach all nations”, the early Church has provided us with a spiritual inheritance that we are likewise called to receive and pass on to a new generation. Our temptation might be to stand, as it were, looking up at the sky wondering where Jesus went. I sometimes find myself saying, “I am just one weak person, tasked with something so major…where do I even begin?”

In this questioning, in these overwhelming moments, I try to return to the example the early Church as they elected Matthias. What kind of person were they looking for?

Together the Church discerned that the one chosen would need to be someone who had established themselves as a witness to Jesus, and therefore it would be required that the person had actually known Jesus and had spent time with him in community.

It is one thing to keep our eyes fixed on Christ, relying on him in every moment. It is quite another to stare idly into the sky, when the task given to us by Jesus is clear.

This celebration of the Ascension of Jesus is a time for each of us to ask whether we’d meet the qualifications of the early Church. Do I witness to Jesus, the risen and living God? Do I know him, or simply know about him? Have I allowed myself to spend time with him, being formed in communion with him through humble, honest prayer?

Jesus, instruct us anew! We long to be your witnesses, even to the ends of the earth!

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