What have we become?
Why are you men of Galilee standing here looking into the sky? (Acts 1.10)
The two in white put their question to the disciples. Why are you standing here looking into the sky? If we were those disciples we would surely have quite a reasonable answer to the question. We focus our attention in the direction in which Jesus has ascended in order to pray. Upwards towards heaven is the direction of our prayer. We treasure the memory of Jesus and we lift up our hearts and minds to God. Our prayers at Mass are focused also on where God is to be found and known and loved. We think of this sacrament and these ceremonies as lifting us up to where God is. For after his Resurrection he plainly appeared to all his disciples and was taken up to heaven in their sight that he might make us sharers in his divinity. God is everywhere, of course, even in the lowest places, but He Himself draws our attention to the highest good, to the heavenly throne, to the very top.
There is our Christian hope in this looking up to heaven: so that you can see what hope his call holds for you, what rich glories he has promised..and how infinitely great is the power that he has exercised. (Ephesians 1.19)
Our highest aspirations, our ideals, our dreams of holiness and goodness: these are in our look upwards along the trajectory of Jesus. There is an exaltation in this for us but it is the uplift of giving glory to God not of self-congratulation. We are looking forward to heaven: where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope.
This longing to be with God forever is our best thought and feeling. When we are thinking and feeling in this way we are understanding ourselves properly: Grant that Christian hope may draw us onward to where our nature is united with you. This is what we were meant for. This is how we should be spending our time. Centred on God. We look forward also to Christ’s second coming. Our looking up is part of our vigilance, part of the readiness in which Jesus has often told us we should live so as not to be caught unawares by His arrival at that day and hour which none of us know. This Jesus whom you saw ascending into heaven will return as you saw him go. (Acts 1.11)
So why wouldn’t we be watching? Why wouldn’t we look up where we glimpsed Him before. This Risen Lord bears traces of his precious wounds and of His suffering and death. So our looking up after Him into heaven is not ignoring the difficult, the less attractive, the painful things. The God into whose heaven we try to stare is One who came down among us and went with us into the worst place and died painfully for our sins.
For all this, there is in the question Why are you men of Galilee standing here looking into the sky? just a hint of reproach. We disciples should not be trying to hold onto Jesus as He returns to the Father. This movement upwards of His which we watch prayerfully and in wonder and vigilantly is not something we should interfere in. As if we could. Of course there are other things to do. Jesus tells us: go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation. (Mark 16.15) There is important work to be done and tasks to perform. Life forces other activities on us and we cannot all the time be praying.
However disciples are not being reproached for praying too much. This really is our best activity and our best help to this world. The complaint, the reproach in the question is directed to our tendency to make too much of Jesus’ departure and of the distance which might now be thought to be between us and Him. He in glory in heaven: us stuck here with all our problems. He ascended not to distance himself from our lowly state but that we his members might be confident of following where he our head and founder had gone before. The Lord remains very close to us and His closeness is above all to our fragility not only to our willingness to fix our attention on heaven. The Ascension celebrates the true nature of our humanity which ascends to heaven with Christ and is transformed here and now by His continuing work on our rescue and sanctification. We are celebrating the most sacred day on which Our Lord placed at the right hand of God’s glory our weak human nature which he had united to himself.
The angels are looking askance not at our neglect of the tasks which are not being done as we pray but at our supposing that the Ascension marks a separation between us and Jesus. It is in fact the feast of a uniting not a separating. Having taken on the worst of us He is carrying that to His Father. Our weakness is disappearing into God. But this is not really a disappearance but a wonderful transformation and promotion. The angels are telling us that we should not stop at looking up but should allow ourselves to ascend with the Lord. Where we are He is. He has returned to the Father taking us with Him. The question is not: Where has Jesus gone? but: What have we become?
Peter Gallagher SJ