Reflections on the readings for June 5, 2011

Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord
Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47; Eph 1:17-23; Mt 28:16-20
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:12-14; Ps 27; 1 Pt 4:13-16; Jn 17:1-11a

Whether your Sunday liturgy celebrates the feast of the Ascension or the Seventh Sunday of Easter, a first reading from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles awaits you.  In the opening verses of Luke’s Acts, we find a prologue that recapitulates the Gospel, placing special emphasis on the empowerment and mission of the disciples.  Both Gospel readings (Mt 28:16-20 and Jn 17:1-11a) also speak to a transitioning church community that bears the presence of God in new ways.  In the final verses of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus instructs his followers, “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:19-20).

The close association between the mission of the disciples and the “end of the age” is significant.  Indeed, this plays out in a particular way at the beginning of Acts when the apostles witness the ascension of Jesus Christ. 

As the apostles look up at the sky, two men appear in white garments and ask, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?”  Biblical scholars have noted the resonance between this encounter and the one at the empty tomb.  There, two men in dazzling garments appear and ask the women, “Why do you seek the living one among the dead?” (Luke 24:4-5).  In both instances, the questioning of the disciples acts as a corrective to their orientation and, we might say, to the moral character of their mission.

The Ascension event draws attention to eschatological concerns (those matters relating to last things).  And eschatological concerns have a significant impact on the way we approach ethics.   As the disciples stand there looking at the sky, they embody a forward-looking orientation that awaits the end of history and the fullness of God’s reign.  Yet, true discipleship must live in the tension of “already not yet.” It must confirm real access to the culmination of salvation history and at the same time acknowledge the limits and incompleteness of that access.  Maintaining this “already not yet” tension can be a challenge in our moral lives, especially in terms of social ethics.

In Douglas Hick’s Inequality and Christian Ethics, he notes how a strong future-looking orientation has been used to defer human equality to an “other-worldly eschatology.”  For example, Augustine has been criticized for an acceptance of social inequality as an inevitable reality in the “not yet” of present times.  The warning here is that if we spend too much time gazing at a paradise in the sky, we may lose sight of (or hope in) our mission to try to facilitate social equality in the present moment. 

Of course, the warning comes in the opposite direction as well.  Charles Curran (in Catholic Social Teaching, 1891-Present) notes that “progress must be carefully distinguished . . . from the growth of Christ’s reign.”  Too much optimism about moral progress can neglect the reality of sin and the “not yet” of eschatology.  Curran identifies an example of this “perennial temptation in Catholic ethics” in the U.S. Bishops’ 1983 document, The Challenge of Peace.  While eschatological tension fuses a presumption for peace with the possibility of justified war, Curran suggests that the bishops’ statement remains too optimistic about the possibility of achieving peace.

If we fail to gaze at the sky entirely, we run the risk of modeling our moral vision on the limited realities of human experience.  If our goal is peace, it must be the sort of peace that the world cannot give.  And yet, excessive sky-gazing misses the empowerment and mission that are so integral to the task of discipleship.  The command to “make disciples of all nations” is hardly a passive call to sit around waiting for the coming of God’s reign.  We must be about the business of spreading the peace and justice that has already been revealed to us through the incarnation.  If indeed, Christ is with us “always, until the end of the age,” then we are always capable of moral progress.  At the same time, that moral progress is always distinct from the realization of God’s reign.  Discerning between the two is a continuing challenge of the moral life and, more specifically, the refinement of our moral vision.