One drawback of celebrating Jesus' Ascension on
the Seventh Sunday of Easter, as some dioceses do, is that every three years
we don't hear one of the most important readings in the Christian
Scriptures: the Acts narrative of Stephen's death.
Many scholars of St. Luke believe this passage
contains the first biblical mention of the belief that, when Christians die,
they instantly find themselves in the risen Jesus' presence.
Before Luke's break-through theological
insight, most followers of Jesus seem to have bought into St. Paul's belief
that they would have to wait until Jesus' second coming before they'd have
such a heavenly experience.
In our first catechism classes, many of us
learned the detailed sequence of events which will take place after we die.
Heaven, hell and purgatory were included in our exams. The difference
between a general and particular judgment was embedded in our memory bank.
Yet, as we realize when we contrast Paul and
Luke's ideas about an immediate afterlife, there's no one consistent
teaching on the subject running throughout our Christian Scriptures. What we
learned in our catechism classes was simply a hodgepodge of ideas brought
together and propounded by later theologians.
Our biblical writers weren't even consistent
about the sequence of events after Jesus' own Resurrection. Is He still here
among us, as Mark, Matthew and John teach? Or did He definitively ascend
into heaven, as Luke in Acts claims?
Even when we hear about an Ascension, as we do
in Sunday's first (Acts 1:1-11) and third readings (Luke 24:46-53), there
seems to be contradictions.
In the Gospel, Luke appears to say that Jesus
ascends immediately after His Easter Sunday appearance to the disciples. But
then Luke begins Acts by telling us in the first reading that Jesus
"presented Himself alive [to His disciples] during 40 days and speaking
about the kingdom of God." That's quite a difference!
Some scholars point out we make a mistake when
we presume every mention of an Ascension is a definitive change of zip code.
In John 20, for instance, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene He's ascending to the
Father, yet He returns later that evening for an upper room commissioning of
His disciples. Perhaps Luke closes the gospel by describing one of those
Source of life
Maybe the best way to make sense out of such
biblical contradictions is not to worry about them. In Sunday's second
reading (Ephesians 1:17-23), Paul, without mentioning the word
"ascend," speaks about God "raising [Jesus] from the dead and
seating Him at His right hand in the heavens."
Yet the most important concept in this passage
is the effect the risen Jesus is having in the lives of those in Paul's
Is it possible, through the years, that
Christians began to ignore the effect of the risen Jesus in their daily
lives? The prerequisites for recognizing that presence were so demanding
that it was easier just to adhere to a handful of rules and regulations, and
zero in on the rewards of the afterlife.
Those who experience Jesus' working in their
lives don't have to worry about what will exactly happen in the future. They
can even tolerate contradictions in their post-resurrection theologies.
If Jesus is a source of life for them while
they're alive, won't He also be a source of life after they die -- no matter
what form that life takes?