7th Sunday of Easter: Sunday after Ascension Day

10 May 2018

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Acts 1.15-17,21-end; Psalm 1; 1 John 5.9-13; John 17.6-19

AS THE Revd Dr Cally Hammond observes, the ascension must have seemed to the disciples like a departure, “a final fracture, an end to the familiarity and custom of their daily relationship” (Glorious Christianity: Walking by faith in the life to come). The response of Mary and the disciples to Christ’s ascension was to return to Jerusalem and “with one accord devote themselves to prayer” (Acts 1.14).

In one way, this is a remarkable response to what may have felt like a second bereavement. Remarkable, also, is the manner in which (in our reading from Acts) the disciples chose a replacement for Judas: full of trust, and acknowledging their dependence on God. They use their God-given gifts of discernment by agreeing on two suitable candidates, and, at the same time, remain open to the surprising work of providence by leaving the final decision to the drawing of lots.

The disciples’ faithfulness in prayer is a response to what Jesus had told them in his farewell discourse (John 14-17). He had recognised that this departure would leave his disciples in need of comfort and strength. Having “protected” them while on earth, he commended them to the Father: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”

As Hans Urs von Balthasar observes, the period of waiting and yearning which the ascension initiates leaves the disciples with a sense of homelessness: “No longer at home in the world and not yet having reached their home in heaven”. That sense of homelessness, combined with a faith in heavenly glory to come, is not a hindrance to the Church’s mission on earth: “Far from being a threat to carrying out the earthly task faithfully and precisely”, the hope of heaven “actually promotes it and alone makes it possible” (Balthasar, Prayer). The truth that has been proclaimed by Jesus in his farewell discourse is enacted by the disciples in the days after the ascension.

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The extraordinary fruitfulness of the Early Church — in adding to the number of disciples, caring for the poorest, and healing the sick — flows directly from their faithfulness and devotion to prayer. Their faith is in the same Lord who lived and worked in Nazareth, and who preached good news to the poor, and who is now seated at the Father’s right hand.

As Balthasar observes, the message of the Gospel reverses a value system not unknown among educated Greeks of the first century, for whom contemplation was opposed to (and superior to) manual labour and practical acts of service. By contrast, the Christian faith “insists that action, too, shares in the spiritual dignity of heavenly contemplation”, and that “in the transient realm of everyday affairs, of the family, politics and culture . . . the Christian is laying a hidden cornerstone for the erection of the heavenly Jerusalem.”

Christians are called to hold action and contemplation in a creative tension: neither turning our backs on the world, nor reducing the mission of the Church to a programme of social improvement. In the light of the ascension, our action in the world is not simply inspired by anger at its injustices, or a sense of obligation to our neighbour. Authentically Christian action is infused with what Pope Francis has called, in his most recent Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate (News, 13 April), a “luminous mysticism”. Such action is inspired by the knowledge that our life is hidden with the ascended Christ in God. Our concrete acts of love both bear witness to that truth and anticipate the day when Christ shall be all in all.

The example of Mary and the disciples points us to the true source of comfort and strength: the Spirit of our risen and ascended Lord. Their prayer echoes another of Jesus’s petitions in this Sunday’s Gospel: “Sanctify them in the truth.”

In these days between the Ascension and Pentecost, our prayer is united with that of Jesus, Mary, and the disciples as we ask for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit. We give thanks that the Father has exalted his Son “with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven”, and then ask “leave us not comfortless” but “send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us” — as we wait in prayer, and in expectation of God’s action in the world.

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