In the Name...
One thing which never ceases to surprise pilgrims to the Holy Land is that they can visit a church of the Annunciation in Nazareth and a church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; in Galilee, a church to commemorate the Sermon on the Mount and a church at the site of the Feeding of the 5,000; in Jerusalem, a church at the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was arrested and a church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose; in short, a church at every site associated with Jesus, but, they will search in vain for a church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. This is because the ancient site of the Ascension of Jesus on the Mt. of Olives is marked, not by an ancient church, but by an ancient mosque. Incredible as it may sound, this mosque epitomizes the paradox that is the Holy Land because it is sacred to, and visited by, both Christians and Moslems.
We hear a lot about Moslems, but not a lot about the Islamic religion, so it comes as a surprise to many Christians to be told that Moslems believe in the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, the event we commemorate today. They also believe in his Birth from the Virgin Mary, that he made miracles of healing and raised the dead, and that he will come again at the end of time to judge both the living and the dead, destroy all evil, and usher in a reign of peace. What they do not believe is that he was crucified, died, and rose again. So, that's rather a significant difference.
But, they do believe that Jesus was no mere mortal man who was born, lived, died and was buried like the rest of us, including Mohammed, their founder, whose tomb is in Medina. They believe that Jesus was a spirit created by God, that he was born into our world through the Virgin Mary, and that he ascended back into Heaven.
The Moslems, however, have not satisfactorily answered one question and that is, "Why?" Why was Jesus born in a miraculous way from a virgin? If he was, in essence, a spirit, why did he ascend with his body instead of merely discarding it? And, why will he come again?
These are questions to which we Christians claim the answers and today's celebration helps us focus on those. St. John Chrysostom, who lived in the 4th Century wrote that, "God became sarkophoros - the flesh-bearer - so that Man could become pneumatophoros - the spirit-bearer."
The Feast of the Ascension is the culmination of what we began to celebrate 40 days ago on Easter. Then, we rejoiced that Jesus, who had suffered and died for our sins, was raised in triumph and won a victory over death. Yet, when you think about it, that's nice for him - I'm glad he rose - but, what does that mean for me? The fact is that without the Ascension, the work of Jesus, the work of redemption and salvation, is not complete. One immortal guy wandering around does not redemption make. It is the Ascension, even more than Easter, which is the basis for the Christian hope of the life to come.
That's why St. Augustine called this, "the crown of all Christian feasts" and went on to say, "Unless the Saviour had ascended, his Nativity would have come to nothing, his Passion would have borne no fruit, and his Resurrection would have been useless." Strong words, but, they underscore St. Augustine's conviction that it was only when Jesus took our human flesh to Heaven that we were given a future beyond this life and this world. His Ascension sanctifies our physical bodies.
Most world religions regard life as a curse and the human body as a bad thing, evil, or at the least an inconvenience and the sooner we shed it the better so that we can waft away into a blissful unconscious state of Nirvana or some such thing. Only Christianity says that not only is having a body a good thing, it is essential to who and what we are. We don't always use it rightly, but, that's our fault, not its.
The life of the world to come of which Christians speak is not a nirvana of non-being. We are exactly who we are in the next life as we are in this one. And as our bodies are part of our existence on earth, so in heaven we will have bodies which are as real as these, only not as limited. That's why we read that Jesus, with his new body, could do things we can't do with ours. He could travel hundreds of miles in the blink of an eye, pass through walls, and yet the disciples could touch him and hug him and he could enjoy a broiled tilapia dinner.
And by ascending into Heaven with his body, and not just leaving it behind, Jesus was saying that when we die to this earthly life, we too will receive new physical bodies which can do amazing non-physical things. We will be individuals with personal identity and meaning beyond what we have known here.
When the Paschal Candle, which has represented Christ on Earth these past forty days, was extinguished during the Gospel, that symbolized the lighting of a personal candle in Heaven for each one of us. A new light for a new life.
And that is what the Moslems miss by only accepting certain facts about Jesus while denying those that make sense of the ones they do. For them, Jesus is a figure of mystery. For us, he is the Saviour.
The Feast of the Ascension. We know the reason for today. It is the reason for everything.
In the Name...