“Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” the two men dressed in white ask the Apostles at the end of our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. That’s the question for us today on the Feast of the Ascension. Why are we celebrating this feast, “looking at” Jesus going into the sky? The answer to this question, as the answer to the men dressed in white, begins with knowing that looking at the sky really isn’t the point.
There’s a parallel at the beginning of the reading. “He presented himself alive to them by many proofs.” The word “proof” points us to something. The miracles, and even his appearance, were not ends in themselves. They were there to prove something else: his power over death, and his divinity. We miss the point if we just focus on the miracles.
Then he tells them, “wait for the promise of the Father . . . . In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” The language is vividly Trinitarian, and he points to the deeper miracle, which is not his ability to rise from the dead, find miraculous catches of fish, or rise into the air. The deeper miracle is his ability to share with us the divine life, the Spirit of God.
They ask, “are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He says, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” Yes, he is restoring the kingdom, but this “kingdom” is way greater than the earthly kingdom they expect. The new kingdom will be their transformation by the divine life he gives to them.
This will extend far beyond the earthly limits of Israel. The new Israel will go “to the ends of the earth.” The “power” they will receive is way beyond earthly power.
Paul tells us more about it in our reading from the letter to the Ephesians. “The Father of glory” – notice again the Trinitarian language – will “give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him.” That’s the outcome. If you’re looking for political power and earthly miracles, maybe this seems disappointing. But knowledge of the Father is infinitely more, takes us infinitely deeper, than any earthly ambition.
“The eyes of your hearts” will “be enlightened.” We will “know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory . . . and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe.”
This is the point of the Ascension. Christ exits the earthly realm – and carries us into the heavenly. He goes from the limits of earthly existence, where we see his earthly face and his earthly miracles in a particular earthly place, to the ultimate extension, both throughout the whole world, and beyond the world into the life of God.
Our readings over and over again use the word “power” and other related words. “The surpassing greatness of his power . . . his great might.” But this is the power of sitting “at his right hand in the heavens,” entering into the presence of God. This goes “far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion”: the true kingdom is so much more than the earthly things we dream of.
And though we can speak of it as “putting all things under his feet,” it goes much deeper to say he is “head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” “Who fills all things in every way” speaks of God himself, the Creator. The awesome mystery is that he gives himself to the Church, calls us beyond the limits of creation, into the Trinitarian life of the Creator – which is supreme, infinite love.
The Gospel reading from the end of Matthew is short and to the point. “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Perhaps the words are too familiar. But the promise is that his “power” extends “to all nations,” so that we can share in the Trinitarian life.
Are our ambitions high enough? Do we recognize how powerful Christ is? Powerful enough not only to raise the dead, but to share with us the divine life.