In today’s first reading – and the gospel, too -- Jesus is presented as going up. In The Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells us:
As they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. . . .they were looking intently at the sky as he was going. . . . (1:9)
So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven. . . . (16:19)
That’s a very visual way to say a lot about him in very few words: he who was raised, first on a cross and then from the dead, is rising once more to return to the One who sent him. By going up, Jesus leaves his earthbound existence behind forever. Up is where his life with the Father is.
Artists and iconographers have always loved this scene; painting it –or “writing it,” as the iconographers say – must be a really powerful experience. In this modern icon, we see Jesus, ascending, while his friends crane their necks to watch him go. Two winged angels holding a rainbow seem to offer him a platform for his ascent, while the two “men in white,” also clearly angels, point upwards as well. All attention seems to be (and rightly so) on the vertical moment. But one person has a different perspective. In this particular icon, the Virgin is looking directly forward – that is, horizontally. You could say that she’s looking at us.
So who are we in this story?
As Jesus is leaving in Acts, he tells his friends to wait for
the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.
Once that “baptism” occurs, he continues,
you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
This little group of friends, still reeling in joy at his return from the dead, must now face up to another departure. This time He is going to life with the Father rather than to death, but still, he’s leaving them. As the cloud takes him “from their sight,” they face the bittersweet reality: he is gone for good, and they are alone – together.
As they continue to look up, all of a sudden they hear the reproach of those “men in white.” Their words make the disciples remember that Jesus had set them one last task: “be my witnesses.” Or, as Mark renders it, he’d told them to “go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” Soon enough, the Spirit will come to make that possible in them on that great Pentecost morning.
So who are we in this story? We on whom Mary gazes?
First, we are the “creatures” of “the whole world” to whom the disciples, those maddeningly dense, fearful people who were so changed by the coming of the Spirit, proclaimed and continue to proclaim the gospel.
And then, by virtue of our Baptism and our membership in his Body, we are those who, despite our own denseness and fear, must also be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” For Luke, that meant Rome. For us? In the Assumption family, just about everywhere – including Rome!
Jesus has gone up to the Father, and that vertical line holds within it the promise of our own eternal life. Alleluia! But the horizontal line in this great story reminds us that he is also still present from one end of the earth to the other through us. May we live it as joyfully and as fearlessly as the Apostles did – with each other and with Mary, Mother of God, Mother of Christ, Mother of the Church. Amen.
—Sr. Nuala Cotter, RA, Provincial of the U.S. Province