There are several ways to understand this feast: It’s the final element of the great 3-part mystery that we call the Paschal Mystery: Jesus’ Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. Also, it marks the pivotal moment in which Jesus’ followers would themselves have to take the reins in the mission of building the Kingdom. Third, it speaks to the moment that humanity formally entered into heaven. These are objective theological explanations, but for the disciples, perhaps Jesus’ Ascension can simply be understood as a period of waiting.
I say that regarding Jesus’ words at the end of the Gospel we just heard. Jesus gave his disciples a final instruction, reminding them that much lay ahead for them: that they were to go to all nations preaching repentance, bringing about forgiveness of sins. He told them they were to be witnesses to Jesus himself by virtue of their lives. But then he also told them: “….behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
In other words, before they were to go out into the world, and before they were to give their lives over as witnesses, they would first need the Holy Spirit, the promise that Jesus’ Father would send upon them. After all, without the Holy Spirit, these simple Galilean fishermen would be entirely ill-equipped for so great a task. He makes it clear: for now, stay put in Jerusalem and wait.
You and I have the benefit of hindsight to know that the promised Holy Spirit would be poured upon them ten days later, which we’ll celebrate next weekend. You and I also have the benefit of having heard how it all happened—that Pentecost event. But for those disciples to whom Jesus was speaking, having been given so little detail, they didn’t know what they were waiting for nor when whatever it was would come. And I suspect that if they had dared to ask for clarity, Jesus would have said, ”Don’t bother trying to figure it out. Just stay put and wait….have faith.” So, they stayed and waited. But with so much uncertainty, that waiting must have been mentally, emotionally and spiritually exhausting.
It makes me think of moments when I’ve experienced people vigilantly remaining close to their loved ones as they move closer to death—not knowing if death will come in the next few minutes or days from now…..waiting in that uncertainty.
It makes me think of circumstances in our lives in which things are not in good order—perhaps as we wait in hope for a call from a prospective employer; as we wait in worry for our children who are making unhealthy or even harmful decisions, wondering when they’ll get it together—those moments in life when we’re left wondering when God’s promises to take care of us are going to take effect.
Waiting is hard and we tend not to be at our best when left to wait. It’s in that uncertainty that we’re more inclined to wain in our trust in God, wondering if He’s even aware of our circumstances; if He’s even real or truly good. Like the Israelites, who waited at the bottom of Mt. Sinai, day after day for Moses and God to appear and lay out a plan for them, to move them toward the great promise. They gave up on waiting, deciding it might be better to just go ahead and make a god, a golden calf (Ex 32). Not so different, in our waiting, we’re tempted to begin seeking alternative solutions to the things we’re hoping for.
So much of the spiritual life requires waiting. Yet, in a culture like ours that regards waiting as a curse or a burden, we’re so preoccupied with what comes next and building our earthly future, that patience and waiting is not something we’re accustomed to. The consequence to this restlessness is that God has little or no time or space to speak to us, to guide us, to make His presence known to us, and to show us how His promises are being fulfilled. Patient waiting and truly being in the present in the moment is something all of us would do well to nurture.
What God is trying to move us toward: In what He’s calling us to leave behind, is to be discovered in that space. In the gradually revealed answer to what’s out of order in our lives is in it too. To soothe our restless hearts and let us know that we are deeply loved. It’s all comes in the patient waiting, letting Him come to us in the present moment. As he said to his disciples, just before he Ascended, I believe Jesus would likewise say to us: Stay put, remain steady, and wait. The promise of my Father will come upon you.