Stories of Power from the Vulnerable People
The recent coronation of King Charles III presented a powerful image of the human ideas of enthronement and power. By contrast, this Sunday’s readings for the solemnity of the Ascension address those topics from the perspective of our faith. The authority that Jesus receives at his enthronement is the result of his vulnerability on the cross and the humility of the people who place their faith in him.
All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go and make disciples of all nations. (Mt 28:16-20)
How can spiritual power be of help in the midst of brokenness?
When have you encountered the power of faith in unexpected places?
Does Christ have the power to change a situation for you?
My professor in Rome, José Luis Sicre, S.J., taught me how narrative and theology can clash and blend within scripture. (If you can read some Spanish you may enjoy his blog post on the Feast of the Ascension.) The narratives of ascension and enthronement in this Sunday’s readings subvert human fantasies of strength and instead present a theology of divine power that flows from vulnerability.
The power of God is so different from our own notions of strength that whenever it appears in Scripture it leaves people perplexed. In Luke’s narrative, the angelic beings associated with exercises of God’s power highlight the confusion of the human witnesses. For example, in this Sunday’s first reading, when the men of Galilee are standing around awe-struck in the presence of an ascending Christ, two beings in white robes appear and say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus…will come as you saw him go” (Acts 1:11). In Luke’s Gospel, the women weeping at the tomb of Jesus encounter two beings in dazzling white robes who ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but risen” (Lk 24:4-5). Finally, a mysterious angel of the Lord with an entire heavenly army proclaims to awestruck shepherds the birth of a child, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to those whom he favors!” (Lk 2:9-15).
The mightiest people are those who, even when defeated, can still pray in hope. They can still pray for peace, for justice, and for each other.
It is as if the divine messengers, when they speak to us mortals, need to ask, “Why are you puzzled by the power of God?” The angels declare glory to God who sits in the highest heaven because this creator can raise the dead, send his holy one to us again, and proclaim favor to people of good will. All the authority one could possibly imagine, at levels of reality which our minds can barely grasp, has become the gift of God to Jesus Christ.
Luke’s narrative context highlights the role of vulnerability in spiritual power. On the one hand, all dominion is given to Christ, who shares it with his church. On the other, Luke shapes this theological insight with grieving women, waiting shepherds, and even the birth of a vulnerable baby seeking shelter from the cold. Within their stories we find God’s understanding of power on earth. When the church reads the end of Matthew’s Gospel today, “All power in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:16-20), it is only after first being reminded of the humble characters in Luke’s narrative. It is to people like them that the dominion of God is now entrusted.
The readings for the Feast of the Ascension can remind us of the place of divine authority within our faith journey. Almighty God raises all people of faith to new spiritual life. The mightiest people are those who, even when defeated, can still pray in hope. They can still pray for peace, for justice, and for each other.
Thus no one should equate such spiritual power with human fantasies of strength. God does not engage in a battle of wills with anyone. Instead, Jesus Christ receives the authority of God to inspire hope, heal brokenness, forgive sins, and raise the dead to new life.