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In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
There have been many attempts to represent the Ascension of Our Lord in artistic form down the centuries. Some of the most comical show the apostles standing on a hillside staring up at a cloud from which a pair of feet can be seen protruding. Artists who have attempted to depict this scene have, of course, made the mistake of trying to give us a visual representation of that which is far beyond our mortal understanding. As we say every Sunday, he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. How can such a thing be represented by our puny human imaginations? Rather than wrestling with a visual image we should be striving to accept the greatness of God’s power and Jesus’ place in that greatness.
We know that both the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were written by the same person, and that they are both addressed to Theophilus. We do not know whether this term referred to a particular individual or whether the author was using it as a general form of address. However, we do know what it means: friend of God, or beloved of God, or loving God. The gospel which ends with an account of Jesus’ Ascension and the earliest account of the newly formed community of faith (Church) which begins with a similar account, are both addressed in the same way. Luke’s words are for those who love God and who are loved by God.
Today’s reading is the account we are given at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. In it we are reminded of the contemporary proofs of Christ’s resurrection. In this carefully constructed narrative there is the underlying question: what more evidence do you need? And towards the end of the passage the two men in white robes ask: why do you stand looking up towards heaven?
The Ascension of Our Lord is not the end of the story, rather it is another beginning. This beginning is one in which we are called to be active participants and not spectators. Throughout his earthly life Jesus gave us a model of love and service. He called us to follow him as faithful disciples (no matter how great the cost) and he called us to go out in his name in order that others might come to know the truth and the joy of God’s love in their lives.
The Ascension is one of the great mysteries of our faith. We will not come anywhere near understanding it until we stand in God’s presence at the end of time. Rather than wrestling with bizarre visual images of that which our human minds cannot comprehend, let us take its message to heart. Let us not stand staring into heaven, but let us play our part in bringing the reality of that heaven into the lives of others.