Years ago I heard the story of the Ascension of the Lord told in such a way that I have never forgotten it. The story was actually told with a bit of humor, and now I can never hear the story without thinking of the image which was provided. The person who was telling the story was a religious sister and we were on a retreat team together. She was one of the funniest people I have ever met, so it should not have surprised me to hear her ‘version’ of the Ascension. In her retelling of it, when she got to the point of Jesus leaving the apostles and being literally lifted up toward heaven, she said she had this mental image of the apostles seeing nothing but the soles of Jesus' feet rising higher and higher as He ascended to the Father. I have a vivid imagination, so now when I think of the Ascension all I can see in my mind's eye are the soles of Jesus’ feet!
What makes her image of the story humorous is what is actually written in the Acts of the Apostles: “As they were looking intently at the sky as He was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking intently at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.’" The angels who appeared were urging the apostles to get back to Jerusalem to the Upper Room and pray until the Holy Spirit arrived. But what makes it sort of humorous to me is that the apostles are seemingly staring into the sky as if dumbfounded. The two angels have to rouse them from their astonishment. It is as if they are saying, "Get a move on folks. Standing here is not what Jesus has asked you to do. There is a church to be born and you need to be ready."
Sometimes we can be so amazed at what happens in the Gospels that we can be pulled into that same sort of reverie. The stories are so amazing that we do not think that these sorts of things could possibly happen in our time. We wonder where all the miracles went, wondering, "Why don't I see miracles like they did?" The apostles were more accustomed to seeing miracles, we think, because they hung out with Jesus, so therefore this was no big deal for them. Obviously it was a big deal, or they would not have been gazing at the sky with their mouths open from the wonder of it all, no doubt. It seems to me that no matter how much they saw during their time with Jesus, including witnessing Him after His resurrection, they never did lose their sense of wonder and awe. The Ascension must have been so magnificent that they simply could not move, as if to wrap their minds around what they just had witnessed.
As to the question of miracles, they have not stopped in the least; they have continued to happen throughout history through the intercession of the saints. Miracles did not die, rise, and ascend with Christ. He is still active in our world and will be until the end of time when He returns to complete the Kingdom He began during His ministry. There are countless stories of the miraculous concerning the work of the saints. In fact, the way a saint is brought forth for canonization requires that two miracles can be attributed to that person after their death. Some of the stories we have are of miracles that happened during their lifetime as well. But I think what keeps us from remembering this is our constant diet of negative news and information that makes it seem like there is nothing going on in terms of acts of God's miraculous power.
But even in daily news, if one looks very carefully, there are stories of people being healed through medicine or of being saved by a hero’s actions at just the right moment. There are stories of babies who are born with health dilemmas who survive against all odds. There are stories of people reaching out and turning the life of another around through their love and care. These are not coincidences. They are the hand of God reaching out to those in need. But just as in the early church, God needs people to help accomplish the work. We cannot stand around looking at the sky, as if God will literally reach down with a giant hand (sort of like the feet rising image) and touch the person Himself. Rather, He needs disciples to help Him to reach out. Just as Jesus chose and empowered disciples, He continues to do so today.
This is not to say that every difficulty will end with a miracle either. To think that would be naive. If we read the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, we will see that not every story ended in a miracle. Sometimes the miracle is simply getting through this life and entering into Heaven. The why and how of it are a mystery known to God alone. However, the point for you and me is to remember that as St. Teresa of Avila said, we are His hands and His feet now; this is the work of apostles and disciples. We are the ones who have to work for justice and peace. We are the ones called to be healers of the bodies, minds, and spirits of others in whatever way we can. Prayer is excellent, but action needs to flow from our prayer. In prayer, we ask God to help the other, but we should ask to be empowered to help as we can, too. Some issues require God to act in a way that we cannot: that is, doing the seemingly impossible. But many others may simply require a person to act as His instrument, just as the Apostles did.
The Ascension was not Jesus leaving us forever. He did not tell the apostles, "I gave you power, now do it alone." Instead He told them to wait a bit more so they could receive the Holy Spirit. That means that what He was giving them was access to His power. They were not to possess the power of God, but to be instruments of it. His Ascension allowed that to happen. Once He was in Heaven, the Spirit could come and help the Apostles know how to proceed. The Spirit would give them guidance, wisdom, comfort, instruction, words to speak, the ability to heal and to forgive, and other gifts they would need to build the Church. The Spirit continues to give those gifts to us. Not only do we receive spiritual gifts through Baptism and Confirmation, we can also receive specific gifts such as patience and perseverance or whatever we need. All we have to do is ask in the name of Jesus and the Spirit will give us the grace we need.
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said: "I have never had clarity and certitude, I only have trust." That trust is a grace from God. It was how she persevered through years of what she called darkness, when she did not have any sense of God's presence. Look how powerful that grace was: she helped countless of the poorest of the poor to die with dignity. That is indeed a miracle. She did it one person at a time and it grew to a world wide effort.
As we celebrate the Ascension this year let us reflect on what Jesus is asking of us as His disciples. We can look intently at the sky if we are looking for inspiration through beauty, but we need to let ourselves be moved to action. No matter how small or large a feat (pun intended) we need to accomplish, if it is done with love it is what He would have us do. The Ascension was important for us as His people. It reminds us that we have the power of the resurrected Christ among us and that with this power, we can rise above our own weaknesses. One day we will reside in the Kingdom of Heaven and see Him as He is, face to face. For now, we need to see Him in the faces of those we love and serve.
May we be inspired by grace to see the opportunities put before us by God to be His hands and feet on earth! May we be like the apostles, attuned to the angels around us who inspire us to move to action! May we realize that Jesus is with us aiding us in performing works of mercy and love! And may we never lose our sense of the miraculous in our world! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of our Ascended and Glorified Lord! Peace!
All the photography is mine. The first two photos were taken in New Mexico. The first one was taken near Taos and the second was taken just outside Santa Fe. The bottom photo, (to the left) was taken on top of Mt. Mucrone in northwestern Italy during a climb while on pilgrimage in the footsteps of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. We had ascended the mountain, and while I did not see any feet rising into the clouds, it was quite a feat for me to have gotten up there!
Heart Speaks to Heart