This reflection on the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord is based on Matthew 28:16-20.
There is a special slab of stone found in the Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. That rock has been revered by Christians for centuries since it is believed to bear the right footprint of our Lord right before he ascended to heaven (the half bearing the left is housed in a mosque). Hence, its name: the Ascension Rock.
Whether or not the relic is authentic, we will never know. All we know is that countless pilgrims all these centuries have been moved and inspired by the sight of our Lord’s footprint.
Among those who developed a great devotion to the Ascension Rock was St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. In the early years after his conversion, he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and it was during this pilgrimage that he visited the Ascension Rock not once but twice because he wanted to study the details of the footprints (specifically, the direction they were facing). But both times the guards refused to let him, and upon his own admission, in order to get in, he bribed the guards (!)–again, not once but twice: first, with a pen knife and the second time, with a pair of scissors. Such had been his desire to see our Lord’s footprints and to pray before the Ascension Rock.
On this Feast of the Ascension, we recall how the Lord was raised to heaven after spending 40 days with his disciples after his resurrection, but not without first promising to send the Holy Spirit to ensure his continued presence among us. One thing, however, strikes me as I look at the picture of the Ascension Rock: These were his very last footprints here on earth! After walking the earth for 33 years, as he was raised to heaven, he left these very footprints (at least he did somewhere!). This for me symbolizes the fact that our Lord has left us a guide on how to live for only 33 years–well, actually only three years, strictly speaking, since we know next to nothing about the hidden years of his life before his Public Ministry. Our Lord has shown us an example of how we should speak and act. But what happens once you’re in your 40s?
I remember an old Jesuit father saying to me some years ago: “When I was much younger, before I spoke or acted, I used to literally ask myself, ‘What would Jesus do?’ Now that I’m in my 70s, I find that I really need to stretch my imagination because I’m not exactly sure what the Lord would do at my age!”
Those last footprints of our Lord remind us that when he ascended to heaven, our Lord left us with no blueprint on how to live our lives. That’s unfortunate: Life would be so much easier if we knew exactly what to do in every situation. In fact, many people insist on believing that even if it doesn’t seem to be God’s idea of how we should live as humans. It’s so much simpler to believe that life is black and white, that there is a ready answer for every possible question that we might encounter in the world. Many people insist, for example, that the Bible offers us the answers to every single question we might have about life.
But that just simply isn’t the case: Our Lord expects us to study God’s Word seriously, but also to use our intelligence in living out our faith in this complicated and sometimes messy world of ours. Thankfully, our Lord continually sends us the Holy Spirit who will guide us, but we need constant prayer and careful discernment to recognize the promptings of the Spirit.
So today, on this Feast of the Ascension, let us renew our effort at practicing a solid prayer life so that we may become increasingly familiar with the Spirit, the Spirit who will teach us right and wrong amidst the uncertainty of our lives.