May 18, 2012

Last year I led a retreat for priests in a beautiful part of the Australian countryside. I had a few hours to kill in Sydney on the way over from Christchurch so I took the train into the city. There I called into the Catholic Shop ( in Castlereigh St.   Pope Benedict’s book “Jesus of Nazareth” (part II) was on the shelf and I bought a copy.

One of my favourite things to do in Sydney is to spend time at Circular Quay.  The atmosphere and view here is stunning. The Harbour Bridge to the left and the Opera House to the right, the diversity of performers entertaining throngs of locals and tourists, the busyness of commuters rushing for ferries and busses, those who are just relaxing, with an 11am beer, – and me with my new book and an espresso.

I was a bit apprehensive as I opened the book.  I had read the pope’s first volume: “Jesus of Nazareth” (part I). To be honest, that work was a bit of a struggle for me academically.  In some ways the first volume was a ‘technical’ work as the pope redirected the reader to a right method of scripture study.  

The pope’s well-founded concern is that over the last 100 or so years, scripture scholars have made the mistake of examining the texts of the Gospels simply as historical documents. This is a problem, since while the Gospels certainly are the product of their time and place, to make a distinction (as many scholars do) between the ‘Jesus of history’ and the ‘Christ of faith’, is a serious misunderstanding of both the purpose of the Gospels, and the reality of the person of Jesus Christ. 

The study of the scriptures is effective only when a person of faith comes to the texts as a pilgrim seeking to encounter Jesus who is the living word.  Without this desire to encounter God in the texts, the scholar will reduce the scriptures to tales of a wise teacher, healings of a kind magician, or the stirrings of a political activist.

Back to Circular Quay and my new book. In the first volume, published in 2007, the pope reflects on Jesus’ ministry from his baptism in the Jordan up to the Transfiguration. In volume two he begins with Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem concluding with the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven.

As I prepared to begin the retreat later that day, we had just celebrated the feast of the Ascension. Reflection on this feast was to be the starting point for the retreat. So, after ordering a coffee, I jumped to the end of the book and began  to read the Epilogue: “He Ascended into Heaven – He is Seated at the Right Hand of the Father, and He Will Come Again in Glory.”

With the first few sentences I saw that this book is much easier to read than the pope’s first volume. I was captivated. This epilogue is a powerful and refreshing insight into the depth, beauty and significance of the Ascension event.

Most people think of the Ascension of Jesus as being a ‘departure’ moment. ‘Jesus was here and now he is gone’. This is not what we celebrate in this feast. We know this from the response of Jesus’ disciples who had witnessed the event. This moment was in no way for them a funeral ‘wake’.  At a funeral we grive and mourn. We are sad because the one we love is no longer with us. However the pope reminds us: “Luke says that the disciples were full of joy at the Lord’s definitive departure”.

It is essential that we understand what the Ascension does mean, and that we know what it does not mean. 

It would be easy to wrongly think that in his ministry showed us how to build the city of God on earth, and now He has gone and the mission is left  to us.  This is the error in (so-named) “Liberation Theology”.  In this well-intentioned and zealous endeavour, we might sing that “we are building the city of God.”   

In fact Jesus has not left this mission to us alone. Our mission is always Jesus’ mission. The work is always the work of Jesus. HE is the missionary. We are little more than loved servants. We are the tenderly embraced instruments of His love. The hymn we now sing is of Jesus‘ building. We sing of God’s reign.

True liberation is both instigated and gifted by God. When humans respond and co-operate with this divine initiative, real freedom becomes an earthly reality.

It is only when we relax into God’s love for us, and the enduring and intimate presence of Jesus with us in every situation and every moment, that we become effective disciples of the Master Missionary. 

Because of the event of the Ascension, Jesus is with us even more intimately. When we live in intimate relationship with him, our efforts bear fruit.

This time last week I was in Jerusalem, Israel with a Christchurch group of twenty pilgrims. Perhaps we think that if we were to be in that Holy Land we would be more likely to encounter the risen Jesus. Before the Ascension of Jesus it would have been true that He was more in Jerusalem than in Christchurch. But now I can personally vouch for that fact that Jesus is as much alive in NZ (or Australia) as in Israel: at Circular Quay, in Cheviot, Chathams, Culverden…

We are never alone. Jesus is with us.


A few quotations from Pope Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth”, Part II

“Let us turn, then, to the end of Luke’s Gospel. Here it is recounted that Jesus appears to the Apostles gathered in Jerusalem, who have just been joined by the two disciples from Emmaus. He eats with them and issues instructions. The closing lines of the Gospel are as follows: “then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessings God” (Luke 24:50=53) 

“The conclusion surprises us. Luke says that the disciples were full of joy at the Lord’s definitive departure. We would have expected the opposite. We would have expected them to be left perplexed and sad. The world was unchanged, and Jesus had gone definitively. They had received a commission that seemed impossible to carry out and lay well beyond their powers. Hos were they to present themselves to the people in Jerusalem, in Israel, in the whole world, saying: “This Jesus, who seemed to have failed, is actually the redeemer of us all”? Every parting causes sadness. Even if it was as one now living that Jesus had left them, how could his definitive separation from them not make them sad? And yet it is written that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, blessing God. How are we to understand this? 

“In any case, it follows that the disciples do not feel abandoned. They do not consider Jesus to have disappeared far away into an inaccessible heaven. They are obviously convinced of a new presence of Jesus. They are certain (as the risen Lord said in Saint Matthew’s account) that he is now present to htem in a new and powerful way. They know that “the right hand of God” to which he “has been exaulted” includes a new manner of his presence; they know that he is now permanently among them, in the way that only God can be close to us. 

“The joy of the disciples after the “Ascension” corrects our image of this event. “Ascension” does not mean departure into a remote region of the cosmos but, rather, the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy. 


“the departing Jesus does not make his way to some distant star. He enters into communion of power and life with the living God, into God’s dominion over space. Hence he has not “gone away”, but now and forever by God’s own power he is present with us and for us. In the farewell discourses of Saint John’s Gospel, this is exactly what Jesus says to his disciples: “I go away, and I will come to you” (John 14:28). These words sum up beautifully what is so special about Jesus’ “going away”, which is also his “coming”, and at the same time they explaint he mystery of the Cross, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. His going away is in this sense a coming, a new form of closeness, of continuing presence, which for John, too, is linked with the “joy” that we saw in Luke’s Gospel. 

“Because Jesus is with the Father, he has not gone away but remains close to us. Now he is no longer in one particular place in the world as he had been before the “Ascension”: now, through his power over space, he is present and accessible to all-throughout history and in every place. 


“Let us return once more to the ending of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus led his followers into the vicinity of Bethany, we are told. “Lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven” (24:50-51). Jesus departs in the act of blessing. He goes while blessing, and he remains in that gesture of blessing. His hands remain stretched out over theis world. The blessing hands of Christ are like a roof that protects us. But at the same time, they are a gesture of opening up, tearing the world open so that heaven may enter in, may become “present” within it. 

“The gesture of hands outstretched in blessing expressed Jesus’ continuing relationship to his disciples, to the world. In departing, he comes to us, in order to raise us up above ourselves and to open up the world to God. This is why the disciples could return home from Bethany rejoicing. In faith we know that Jesus holds his hands stretched out in blessing over us. That is the lasting motive of Christian joy. 


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