By Jean-Claude Deroche
Translation Louise Thunin
In a lay society such as France’s, religious holidays often take on a secular form. Thus, Christmas has become a family gathering dedicated to the joy of the children. Easter and Pentecost are appreciated because they offer long weekends. For Ascension, the phenomenon is even more striking. For families, it provides their first short spring vacation. For the United Protestant Church of France, it’s the occasion to hold its national synod, and so on. Few parishes continue to celebrate this moment, whose significance is foggy and tending to disappear. That is regrettable, because a believer’s true mission is founded on the meaning of this holiday.
In Matthew 28 : 18-20, we read : “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’ ”
Even if this text was written several decades after the events, it transmits what Jesus’ contemporaries understood about the sequence of happenings that followed his crucifixion. The first element that they sought to share was that in spite of the failure of an ignominious death, the life and teachings of the one who had been condemned were still pertinent for those who had met him, and it was therefore useful to transmit them to those who had not known him. They didn’t understand that immediately, but rather after a more or less rapid inner maturation, a sort of illumination that filled them with joy, enthusiasm and dynamism, as the episode of Emmaüs shows. This inner illumination that they experienced was very similar to that of the mathematician who finally found the solution he had been seeking for so long, as Archimedes cried out in his bath tub, Eureka !
The second element is the permanence of a reassuring presence that fortifies us in spite of its invisibility. The same idea was taken up by a president of the French Republic in his last wishes for the new year in 1994 : “I believe in the power of spirit, and I will never leave you.” This inner certainty that we feel individually, as did Paul on the road to Damascus, had, for these people, the same inherent validity that is not only intemporal but addressed to “ all nations.” We can say that it was the first time that such a universal aim, such globalization, was expressed as a program.
The risk inherent in certainty is that of emprisoning ourselves in a form of contemplation closed in on itself. There is indeed a frequent temptation to withdraw from a world that we judge incapable of receiving such a project. We’ve seen it in the past with those communities that preferred death to a life lived within the reality of this world, from Massada to Montségur to Guyana, more recently, and to the aberrations of religious terrorism.
And so, it is here that Ascension brings us back to reality and reason. Acts 1 : 10-11 says, “And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?’”
This is the deeper meaning of Ascension Day: don’t shut yourself up in the contemplation of an elswhere that you await passively, but grab hold of the reality of the world, face the difficulties and flaws of human society, as did the Nazarene who welcomed the excluded in order to return them to society, who did not hesitate to touch the contagiously ill and called those who considered themselves unworthy. Ascension is the foundation of a Christian faith that aims first at social action, in order to birth a new society. It’s the departure signal for a radical transformation of individuals, which then extends to social progress for all.
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