Thursday, 2 June 2011

Ascension Thursday Year A

I am happy that Ascension is still celebrated on a Thursday and not on a Sunday. After all, it is not called Ascension Thursday for nothing. Later, you will know why I am happy. The first reading took off as the Gospel concluded, giving us a picturesque description of the post-Ascension scene. On a mountain, we are told, that as the Lord was lifted up, they looked on until a cloud took Him from their sight. Even then, they continued staring into the sky.

Was their sight blocked by the clouds of mystery or interrupted by the appearance of two men in white as reported by Luke or was there something else they saw? They were transfixed for they saw heaven and no less. Mt 6:21 or Lk 12:34 tell us this: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. So, in the case of the Ascension, where Christ the head has gone to, you can be sure that the Church His Body is there also. On the mountain, the Apostles were momentarily transported into heaven. Hence, the Ascension was not simply the act of Christ returning to from whence He had come. In the Ascension we actually catch a glimpse of heaven, much like Peter, James and John lingering on Mount Tabor after they caught sight of Christ brilliance at the Transfiguration.

This glimpse of heaven succinctly sketched in the second reading is echoed in our liturgy for the Ascension: Christ, the mediator between God and man, judge of the world and Lord of all, has passed beyond our sight, not to abandon us but to be our hope. Christ is the beginning, the head of the Church; where He has gone, we hope to follow.

But, unlike the Apostles, we are not completely convinced that we should follow. Our line of vision is blocked not by the clouds of mystery or by angels appearing. Instead, our vision is blurred because we have mistaken earth for heaven. What was originally intended to be a pit-stop has become for us the final destination. We have been so beguiled by the world that we no longer give a second thought to heaven and what is disturbing is for most of us that is not unusual. In the field of socio-politico-economic planning, we speak of strategic long-term planning but our long-term is not long enough.

Have you watched the movie 2012? Notice how a symbol of life hereafter, the Dome of St Peter’s Basilica was dramatically destroyed as it ploughed into a Piazza packed with praying pilgrims, sending a clear message that belief in the afterlife was basically futile. Furthermore, observe how the crack on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel occurred right at the spot where God the Father’s finger touches Adam’s and giving him life. The crack effectively severed the link between the Creator and the creature, rendering the promise of everlasting presence that Christ made on the mountain null and void. Thus, we are reduced to a materialist existence. Our obsession with the prolongation not the preservation of life is symptomatic of a materialist [1] philosophy.

This obsession with prolonging life is manifested through a preoccupation we have with safety. In the aftermath of the recent landslide we are naturally caught up by the mindless and unnecessary loss of lives. Our discussions centre on, amongst many issues, the need for proper building codes or regulations—where and how to build. If you see a construction site, you would probably know what I am speaking about. There would be numerous signs reminding workers about safety together with the necessary barricades, harnesses and helmets. And of course, these are needed to indemnify the builders or contractors should any mishaps occur on-site.

This preoccupation with precaution which is symptomatic of a materialist world cuts across every facet of our live. For example, parents with a single offspring will take every precaution for their child to be safe. And let me clarify that I am not against the taking of precaution. Taking proper steps to be safe is commendable because it is the expression of the instinct to preserve life.

But, do you know that many of us worry about safety but we do not give ample thoughts to salvation? It seems that we want to be safe but we do not really care that we be saved. This is what I meant when I said that we have mistaken a pit-stop for the final destination. Our concern for safety is actually an expression of our desire for salvation but we are beguiled into thinking that safety is the be all and end all of our concerns. Even if we do not say it, we are actually implying that beyond safety, there is only a void—nothingness. Preservation of life is one thing. Obsessive prolongation of life is just an indication of a materialist mentality.

Now you know why I am happy that Ascension is celebrated today. It is a little inconvenient. You would have to set aside time, rush from work, break your daily routine. What the exercise does is that it takes us away from all that we deem to be important materially so that we can catch a glimpse of what is also important immaterially—heaven.

If Ascension is a reminder of our salvation, a reminder that our home is in heaven, then it is also a reminder of what God does for us. Moving it to a Sunday merely proposes that salvation can “wait” and we are “masters” of our destiny and salvation, so much so that we can leave God to a time when we have the time to attend to Him. It is convenience at its worst. So, despite its materialist overtone, the movie 2012 teaches us a valuable lesson: the time for salvation waits for no one. Do not be caught unawares. As Shakespeare quotes of Julius Caesar, set honour in one eye and death in the other, Ascension invites us live life to the fullest but always with one eye set on heaven.
[1] I have deliberately not used the word “materialistic” because I am simply making an observation rather than a “judgement”. We are materialist by nature because we are incarnated spirits. The word does not in any way denigrate worldly concerns. However, rich or poor, everyone’s struggle is to be non materialistic.