“You’ve been living in Boston for nearly ten years, and you’ve not been to Fenway Park?” That’s what a friend of mine said to me some months ago, and he promptly went out to buy a couple of tickets. And so it was one late afternoon we were lining up outside the stadium among the crowds, waiting for the Red Sox to meet the LA Angels. Well, all I can say is that I was well and truly smitten. It was one of the most exciting evenings I’ve ever had. It was an incredible game. But what I most remember is the time just before the game began. The crowds were alive with excited expectancy and anticipation. Kids were jumping up and down in excitement. They knew this was going to be a special game and the atmosphere of expectancy was electric.
That experience of my first Red Sox game came back to me as I was reflecting on today’s Gospel. Those disciples must have been absolutely filled with a sense of expectancy and anticipation. Something amazing was about to happen. Jesus has just ascended into heaven, and we read “the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the Temple blessing God.” (Lk 24:52-53) They were probably singing, praying, even dancing in their joy. I wonder what the others in the Temple thought? What’s up with them? What are they so excited about?
Their excitement came from this incredible sense of anticipation. Something was about to happen. Jesus had promised, a few verses earlier, that something was going to happen to them. “I am going to send upon you what my Father promised: so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Lk 24:49)
And they weren’t disappointed: for soon it did happen: the intense experience of Pentecost, which pounded their senses, and set their hearts on fire.
But now, this time between the Ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the liturgical time we are in now, was one of joyful and thrilling anticipation and expectancy.
So what was it all about? The disciples knew that because of Jesus’ resurrection something tremendously important had happened to Jesus – but as yet they could hardly get their minds around how Jesus’ resurrection could directly affect them. Indeed, I might ask you today – how does his resurrection directly affect you? It’s good for Jesus – but how can it be good news for me?
For many years, one of the great barriers to man’s technological progress was the sound barrier. Fighter pilots towards the end of the Second World War went into deep dives, often taking them very close to the speed of sound. The planes would shake violently, the controls freeze, and they were often shattered to pieces. It took until 1947 before one man, Chuck Yeager, flew successfully through the sound barrier. Only 30 years later, passengers aboard supersonic aircraft could effortlessly pass through the sound barrier while sipping a glass of champagne!
For most people, the most frightening and daunting barrier to pass through is not the sound barrier, but the death barrier. Death, the final enemy. Death has throughout the history of humankind been the ultimate barrier, the end, the unspeakable, the tragic – the ultimate barrier.
The story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is of how one man passed through the death barrier – and was raised to life, never to die again. But then, and this is what those disciples waiting in the Temple were to discover, the story of Jesus’ ascension and gift of the spirit at Pentecost is of how we, too, can pass through that barrier with Jesus, our pioneer.
The Ascension was the means by which Jesus was able to share the fruits of his redemptive love with us – share his victory over death with us. It is as if from that place of exaltation, at the right side of his Father, that Jesus is able, as in those great Orthodox icons of the resurrection, to reach out his hand and grasp our hand, and pull us after him through the death barrier, and into life eternal.
“I, if I be lifted up, will draw all people unto myself.” (John 12:32)
No wonder the disciples went into the Temple filled with rejoicing and anticipation. For the coming gift of the Holy Spirit would be the means though which they would be incorporated into the Risen Lord, and would pass with him through death to life. Jesus is, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “the pioneer of our salvation.” (Heb 2:10)
And that is very good news. That is something worth being excited by. Something to celebrate with joy.
Next week is Pentecost, when we gather to celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit who gives us the power to become one with the Risen Christ, and who takes us with him through death to life.
So how should we prepare now for that great event? One way, I think, is to get in touch again with the Living Lord, the one who through Jesus has promised to lead us through the experience of death – to raise us from death to life. That should fill us with excitement and joy, like those first disciples in the Temple.
Secondly, you don’t have to wait till you have died to receive the gift of eternal life – it begins now. When we receive the Holy Spirit into our lives, we are already, now being transformed, being made alive – already in the process of passing from death to life.
So maybe today we can ask ourselves:
Where are there signs of resurrection in my life right now? What is dying? What needs to die?
How am I being transformed and brought to life by God’s Holy Spirit?
Where, maybe, am I resisting God’s Spirit?
Where do I still cling to the old life, to old habits, which lead to death?
“Behold,” Jesus says, “I came that you may have life – and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Claim that life today! For the message of Ascension is REJOICE! For the best is yet to come!
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