Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Look Down, Look Ahead

Ascension Year B

If you have ever travelled to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon of South Vietnam) or a read a travel advisory, you would know that one of the highlights of your tour should be a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnel Memorial Park. As innocent (or ticklish-ly cute) as the name of the park may sound, the tunnels were built for a more sinister purpose. The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located north of Ho Chi Minh City and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The tunnels were used by Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communist) guerrillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped achieve ultimate military success.

During my first trip to Ho Chi Minh City, I was taken on a tour of one of the larger excavated tunnels. We were warned by our guide to look up at the ceiling of the tunnel and to watch our heads. Taking the advice to heart, I forgot to watch where I was stepping until it was too late. And then my foot hit a soft landing, a substance that felt wet and squishy, and which emitted an all too familiar odour. It was dog’s pooh. It seems that in our excitement to look upwards, we failed to look down.   

Christianity is often seen as a life-denying religion – a religion that is only focused on life after death and one which encourages its followers to avoid their earthly responsibilities. Christians are often accused of having their heads in the clouds, for looking upwards without having any care for what is below. On the other hand, many people live as if there is no life after death. They believe that everything must find a final resolution or closure within this life. They search to better their lives by looking for or constructing an earthly Shangri-la or Utopia here below.

This is a far cry from the message of the Feast which we celebrate today. The ascension does not lead us to focus only on heavenly existence whilst ignoring earthly life. We need to look upwards, but we must never forgot to look down too. “Why are you standing here looking up into the sky,” the two men dressed in white, presumably angels, which you would find at the end of today’s first reading ask this of the apostles who were still gazing up into the sky long after Jesus had departed from their sight. Perhaps, they were rooted to that site in disbelief, a kind of denial that Jesus had actually departed. In any event, the angels’ caution was a reminder that their sky-gazing activities should not distract or detract them from their mission. Whilst applying themselves to their mission on earth, they should also not lose sight of the eschatological event – that Jesus will one day return. In other words, we should not only look at what is immediately before us, but also ahead of us. Within this single scene, we can come to the conclusion that Christianity brings together both ethical obligations and missionary responsibilities that are tied to our existence here on earth as well as every Christian’s hopeful expectation of the Last Things – the Parousia or Second Coming of Christ, death, judgment, heaven and hell.

In the early decades of Christianity, many Christians sincerely believed that the world was going to end with the return of Christ in their lifetime. This led to an entire spectrum, a variety of lifestyles and behaviour. Some stopped working for they thought that their days were numbered and should therefore be better spent in prayer and vigilance for the Lord’s imminent coming. This resulted in economic crises in families. There were others who felt that since the world was coming to an end, it would therefore be best to spend the remainder of our lives in purely hedonistic activities – debauchery, drinking, partying and fulfilling every particular need of the flesh. In many of Paul’s letters, we see him frantically trying to correct this misunderstanding on the part of Christians and to remind them that their new life in Christ and in the Spirit had serious moral implications. In any event, they should continue their daily business and apply themselves to the missionary responsibility and commitment to the community.

This feast, therefore, reminds us to pay attention to the way we live our present earthly lives so that this can be perfected in our heavenly life. Rather than a denial of life, earthly responsibilities and commitments, today’s feast challenges us to affirm this life and recommit ourselves to our responsibilities, especially our responsibilities to our fellow brothers and sisters. St. Paul, in today’s second reading, writes to us: “I … implore you to lead a life worthy of your vocation. Bear with one another charitably, in complete selflessness, gentleness and patience. Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together.”  Our responsibilities include the mission to evangelise. Before ascending to heaven, Jesus left his disciples and the Church this mission: “Go out to the whole world, proclaim the Good News to all creation.” It is the good news of the Kingdom of God.

Although we are asked to proclaim the Kingdom of God through our words and actions here and now, we must not deceive ourselves by thinking that we can replicate heaven on earth. We must not confuse our present temporary existence with the eternal life promised by Christ to his believers. In the early age of Christianity, some Christians also grew impatient in waiting for Christ’s second coming. They felt weighed down by the trials and tribulations of their lives. They faced persecution from outside the church and conflict within the church. They were beginning to lose faith in God because they had lost hope in Christ returning to save them. In the face of such difficulties, we often find ourselves being blinded by our fears and anxieties, by the weight of present sufferings and trials. We are unable to see the light of God’s final act of redeeming humanity and recreating the world. Short term and seemingly achievable goals that provide temporary relief replace long term ones that promise salvation. Our vision becomes narrowed to the point of spiritual myopia.

This was the problem of the disciples in today’s first reading. When they asked Jesus whether the time had come for the restoration of the kingdom of Israel, their focus was only on building an earthly kingdom, a kingdom confined to their ethnic identity. But the event of the Ascension leads them to understand that the kingdom of God is much broader than any vision of an earthly paradise that could be achieved in this life or even in the future to come. The kingdom of God would only come to its perfection at the end of time, when God recreates the whole of the universe in Jesus Christ. This, however, does not release us from our present responsibilities but rather challenges us to constantly work for the Kingdom of God throughout our earthly lives. We will never be able to create a perfect society in our lifetime, therefore the need to always work for the betterment of society, the healing of relationships and the promotion of justice, love and peace in this world. Keeping our gaze on the bigger picture, on the Kingdom of God, allows us to rise above any setbacks, failures and disappointments. We are only able to see a small part of the picture. Our personal failure is not to be translated as ultimate failure which would be disastrous. In fact, our faith and hope informs us that our victory is already assured. The Ascension is our assurance of this.

Today, as we reflect on this feast of the Ascension, let us not look into the sky and be lost in the clouds like the disciples in today’s first reading. Rather, let us recommit ourselves to the mission which Christ has entrusted to us, here and now. But, let us also not be to too concern with our human pursuits that we lose sight of God’s kingdom and Christ coming at the end of time, for then we will only substitute the promise of heaven with a poor imitation here below.

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