Sybil 1999

Gospel text

Luke 24: 46-53

Jesus concluded, "All of this is in the Bible, that Messiah was going to suffer and rise from the world of the dead on the third day, 47 and that thereafter it would be announced to all nations, beginning with Jerusalen, the invitation to set a new direction to one's life in his name so as to experience the liberation from one's waywardnesses. 48 You are witnesses of all this. 49 And see, I am sending you what has been promised for you by my Father. You, stay in the city until you are clothed with the power from above". 50 Jesus took them out of the city to Bethany, then raised his hands and made a sign expressing God's loving attention. 51 And it was when he made this gesture that he separated from them to join the world of God. 52 As for them, after bowing in veneration, they returned to Jerusalem, filled with immense joy. 53 Subsequently, they were found all the time in the temple expressing their gratitude to God.


Two worlds, yet so close

Gospel commentary - Homily

Where is heaven?

Am I mistaken in thinking that the Ascension of the Lord occupies very little space in the contemporary imagination? In France, the Ascension holiday still exists. But otherwise, the celebration itself and the story associated with it doesn't have much emotional impact. Only its place between Easter and Pentecost and the fact that it takes place in the middle of spring give it a sunny air.

There is something unusual about Luke's own story. In the Gospel, the "taking" of Jesus to heaven happens on Easter day, on the hill of Bethany, while in the Acts of the Apostles, written by the same Luke, the "elevation" of Jesus takes place 40 days later, in the middle of a meal in Jerusalem. Unless one consider the evangelist totally incoherent, we must read the story not as a historical narrative, but as a symbolic narrative. But symbol of what? In fact, the New Testament uses different words to speak of the same reality: "exalted by the right hand of God", "Christ enters the heavenly sanctuary", "ascended to the Father", "sit on the right hand of God", "rise above all the heavens", "raised from the earth". What are we trying to say here?

We know what it's like to see someone go. I still have very vivid memories of this moment when I left the family home to pursue studies in the big city, 400 miles away: on the railway station platform were my mother and my 6-year-old sister to say goodbye. It was a letter from this sister, written with the words of a 6-year-old sent to me by my mother two weeks later, which made me understand the pain of separation. However, I had to leave home if I wanted to continue my studies. This is essentially what the story of the Ascension says: no matter how much we celebrate Easter with the joy of our faith in a living Jesus, the fact remains that the people who touched him, kissed him and listened to him will never be able to do so anymore, they need to go through bereavement, they need now to look at him in a different way. Jesus is now "elsewhere", in "another world".

But, as you well know, we are not just experiencing an absence. If we speak of ascension, ascent or exaltation, it is because the situation of Jesus is better after his death than before his death, just as we will speak of the ascension of a star. What exactly is this situation? In different ways, we try to say that Jesus has passed into the world of God, that he now belongs to another dimension. How can I learn more about this world? The image of the sky or the clouds is deceptive. Of course, it can be used to translate "elsewhere", especially for people of Antiquity. But, for us who are learning to tame the sky, to the point of exploring the planets, the image loses its strength. But there is more. The image may translate the distance, while the story means exactly the opposite: the entry of Jesus into a new dimension allowing him to dwell in the human heart, which will be explicitly affirmed with Pentecost. Rather than talking about ascension, shouldn't we be talking about integration into our world? And do we not understand then the joy of the disciples who never cease to express their gratitude in the temple, at the end of the Gospel?

Currently, the city of Madrid mourns its hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded, an event that will now be associated with gross and blind horror, like New York and 9/11. Tied with this nameless sadness is a feeling of total helplessness and great vulnerability. What can we proclaim with Easter? That death and horror will never happen again? Obviously not! But if the risen Jesus is truly able to dwell forcefully into the human heart, then we are not left alone to rekindle life in the middle of the ashes. This is what this gesture of Jesus, who raises his hands like the high Jewish priest and blesses his disciples, is trying to translate: his loving action will continue in an even more effective way in our world.

Why two Ascension stories, one on Easter day, the other forty days later? From his death, Jesus entered the dimension of God which allows him to dwell in our hearts. Ascension and Easter therefore go together. But we, on the other hand, need to take the time to go through our mourning, to travel the path of the exodus, before realizing that the one we thought so far away was in fact so close.


-André Gilbert, Gatineau, March 2004