A couple of years ago I led a retreat for priests in a beautiful part of the Australian countryside. I had a few hours in Sydney on the way over from Christchurch so I took the train into the city. There I called into the Catholic Shop (www.paulinebooks.com.au) in Castlereigh street. 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 is lively and the view is stunning. The Harbour Bridge to the left and the Opera House to the right, the diversity of buskers entertaining throngs of appreciative locals and tourists, the busy commuters rushing for ferries and busses, those who are just relaxing, with late-morning beer, and me with my new book and a coffee.
I was a bit apprehensive as I opened the book. I had read Benedict’s first volume (of what would ultimately be the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy) and parts of that work were a bit of a struggle for me, In some ways the first volume was a “technical” work as he redirected the reader to right methods of scripture study.
The pope’s well founded concern was that over the last century or so, scripture scholars made the mistake of examining the texts of the Gospels simply as historical documents.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 Jesus in these texts, the scholar will reduce the scriptures to tales of a wise teacher, healings of a kind magician, or stirrings of a political activist.
Back to Circular Quay and my new book. In the first volume, published in 2007, Pope Emeritus Benedict 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 and concludes with Ascension of the Lord into heaven.
As I prepared to begin the retreat later in the day it was just a few days after celebrating the feast of the Ascension. This feast was to be the starting point for the retreat. So, after ordering an espresso, I jumped to the end of the book and started 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 realised that this book is much easier to read than volume one. 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 a funeral “wake.” At a funeral we grieve and mourn. We are sad because the one we love is no longer with us. However the pope reminds us that “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 Jesus showed us how to build the city of God on earth, and how he has gone and the mission is left to us. This is the nuancing needed by (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. HE is the missionary. We are the 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 breaking, by the action and power of God, into our earthly realm.
True liberation is both instigated and gifted by God. When humans respond and co-operate with this divine initiative, real freedom becomes and 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.
We are never alone. He is with us wherever we are: at Circular Quay, in Cheviot, Chathams, Culverden, Chicago…