Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Christ, our New Horizon

Ascension Year C

When I woke up this Monday and turned on my computer, I was assailed by numerous Facebook notifications and emails from friends who could only express their profound disappointment with the electoral process and the results that were announced the night before. I guess the sentiment was shared by most Malaysians across the political divide – from the victors, who did not really feel like victors, to the losers, who felt they had been robbed of a victory through fraudulent means. Unlike previous elections, there were no exuberant post-election celebrations. Like the Apostles in today’s first reading, many Malaysians remain perplexed and saddened, feel cheated and beaten, trapped in our disbelief and ruminations of the unexpected turn of events.

But just three days after Black Monday, the Church invites us to celebrate Ascension Thursday (a ‘White Thursday’, going by the colour of the vestments) with our heads raised and our eyes lifted up instead of looking down. By doing so, the Church is not planning to pull a wooly fur-lined cover over our eyes and ask us to pretend that nothing had happened. The joy which permeates today’s celebration is not the result of false optimism or neurotic denial. It’s a real joy that comes from a broadened vision. Today’s Solemnity expands our horizon so that we may gaze beyond the many disappointments, failures, discouragement, trials, and setbacks which often mark this earthly existence of ours.

The apostles must have felt like many Malaysians these past days. They had already suffered the pain of experiencing the death and loss of their Master, and now they had to endure a second parting. After the resurrection, Jesus had returned to his disciples on many occasions, breaking bread with them and instructing them. Their hopes were raised in believing that this time, things would be different; he would never leave them again, but he did. One would imagine the burning questions they had for the Lord. But the only question they could muster at the moment of Christ’s departure betrayed their deepest concern: “Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” I am tempted to provide a liberal contextual paraphrasing in the light of what has taken place in Malaysia these last few days, “Lord, has the time come? Are you going to finally bring change to Malaysia? Will justice finally be restored to this nation?” The answer which Jesus offered would certainly disappoint anyone who would have expected greater clarity and a less ambivalent ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. But the intention of Jesus was clear, he wanted to expand the horizon of their vision, a vision which often seems stuck trapped in a hopeless evaluation of the past, the present and the future.

The apostles, just like any Jew of the first century A.D., dreamt not only of political liberation from Roman occupation but also restoration of the Davidic kingdom of old. For the Jews, "the kingdom" referred to an idealised epoch of their history, the glory days of the Jewish people: it referred to the time when King David and his descendants ruled Israel as a wealthy and independent nation. After the Jewish people were conquered and taken into captivity in Babylon it was the hope of the restoration of “the kingdom” that was the defining hope of the Jewish people. Thus when the apostles spoke of restoring the kingdom, they were thinking of it as a national entity with its centre located in Jerusalem and its domain encompassing the land of their fathers. They were envisioning a Utopian ‘heaven on earth’. It was this that they were expecting the Messiah to do for them.

What happened at the Ascension radically changed what it was they hoped for, and their whole notion of what "the kingdom" was all about. Through his Ascension, Jesus opened the minds of the apostles and expanded the horizon of their understanding concerning the kingdom and his mission. The gospels do not present Jesus as a mere political messiah. Political liberation was never part of his agenda. This would be trivialising his mission. His real mission was far greater – he had come not to restore the political kingdom of Israel but to restore mankind to the kingdom of God, to communion with the Father to whom he was now returning. What was required was not just a socio-political and economic restructuring of the whole system. The socio-economic and political woes of humanity were just symptomatic of a much deeper malaise. What was ultimately needed was salvation, and thus repentance for the forgiveness of sins becomes the primary agenda of Christ and the Church.

Jesus thus challenges the apostles and the Church to look beyond their ethnocentric concerns so often defined by earthly categories of territory, boundaries, politics, culture and language: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth.” The whole vast world was now open for mission, heaven would now be everyone’s destination and goal. So why would anyone settle for anything less?  

It is from this renewed vision of things, this broadened vision of an expanded horizon, that we can now find consolation. In this world, as long as we place our hopes in human institutions and solutions, we will always experience disappointment.  There will be no single human solution that would rid the world of all its troubles. There will be no medicine or treatment that will cure and prevent all diseases. There will be no political system that would fully safeguard our liberties. There will be no human leader that could prove to be Saviour of all and sundry. But failure to find this illusive ‘Final Solution’ should not be cause for despair nor an admission of defeat. On the contrary, it is this very acknowledgement that allows us to lift our eyes above and gaze at the one whom God has raised from the dead and who now “sits at his right hand, in heaven, far above every Sovereignty, Authority, Power or Domination, or any other name that can be named, not only in this age, but also in the age to come.” With confidence, we trust and believe, that God has “put all things under his feet, and made him as the ruler of everything, the head of the Church; which is his boy, the fullness of him who fills the whole creation.”

But this does not mean that we should passively resign ourselves to our present predicament. Our sense of powerlessness to deal with the troubles of our time is no licence to abdicate our responsibility to do something. Rather, the Crucified and Risen Lord, who is now seated at the right side of the Father entrust each of us with a new mission, and the vigour to carry out the same. Just like the disciples who were emboldened by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are now called to make Christ’s presence visible by our witness, preaching and missionary zeal. We are called to make God’s Kingdom of justice, peace and love visible through our words and deeds. This is the condition of the Church, the Second Vatican Council recalls, as she “presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God’, announcing the Cross and death of the Lord until he comes” (Lumen Gentium LG 8).

The mission and vocation of the Church is far more important than any political party or NGO that seeks to bring about transformation through socio-economic and political means. Indeed, the Church is called to witness faithfully to the message of the gospel. She is to remind Man of his "supreme vocation" (Gaudium et Spes, no. 22), that every human person (is) called to the eternal life of the kingdom of God, kingdom of love, light and peace.” (Pope Benedict XVI)  The Ascension reveals to us our final destination – ‘Heaven’ and ‘Heaven’, as Pope Benedict reminds us, “does not indicate a place above the stars but something far more daring and sublime: it indicates Christ himself, the divine Person who welcomes humanity fully and forever, the One in whom God and man are inseparably united forever.”

On this day, where we remember Christ being ‘lifted up’; let us always remember to keep our hearts fixed on Christ, to prefer nothing to him. We may be tempted to look back at the past and be trapped in a prison of anger and resentment. We may be tempted to look down, beaten into submission and despair. We may be tempted to look ahead, and be lost in endless speculations and fruitless predictions. In all these, we may ultimately be tempted to experience grief and come to believe that Christ is absent in our troubled world. But today, we are reminded to look above and with hearts ‘full of joy’ see the certainty of our hope, our liberation and our peace. It is Christ, our Risen Lord and Saviour, he who “gives life a new horizon and a definitive direction”! (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est)

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