Acts 1. 6-14
Laudabo Nomen Domini
It had certainly been a strange couple of months…actually, it had been a strange couple of years, but it had been just a few weeks since Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and burial, followed by the disciples’ flight to their upper room hideout and then the women’s unbelievable message: ‘He is alive. He is risen. We have seen him.’ And soon the men saw him too…
I imagine that after the shock and despair of Jesus’ public execution and then the shock and joy of Jesus’ resurrection, they were probably just starting to dare to hope again—to begin to wonder again just what kind of impact Jesus would have on their lives and their future.
But note that during their shared meals and other encounters with the risen Jesus, Jesus was still trying to teach them about the kingdom of God—he was still trying to expand their vision of God’s kingdom…But even then, the focus of their hope went right back to their long-standing, familiar top concerns: ‘Well, all this talk about the kingdom of God is very interesting, Jesus, but what about those Romans? When is God going to get rid of them? When will you restore Israel’s freedom? After all, it certainly couldn’t possibly be the kingdom of God as long as they’re still in it…’
Jesus was trying to expand their vision of the kingdom of God—to draw them out of the merely familiar or habitual or even good but safe vision of the kingdom they cherished…and they were busy shrinking it right back down to an understandable and (in their minds) desirable size. In fact, they were far more interested in who would be pushed out of God’s kingdom than they were in allowing Jesus to stretch their hopes and expand their vision of God’s workings in the world. Far easier to go back to the familiar hopes…the well-loved dreams…the much-rehearsed visions of what the future ought to look like…
Now, it’s not that their hopes were (necessarily) wrong… it’s just that they weren’t big enough. It certainly was not (and is not) wrong to hope that an oppressed people would be freed…It wasn’t wrong to hope that Israel would be liberated from Roman occupation…but…if that was as far as their hopes extended, then their hopes were simply not big enough.
‘Men of Galilee, why are you standing around looking at the sky?’
I think there is a (perhaps) a small but significant difference between the brief portrayal of the Ascension at the end of Luke and the one at the beginning of Acts. In Luke, we read that as Jesus was blessing the disciples, he disappeared from their view, and ‘they went back to Jerusalem full of joy; and they were continually in the Temple praising God.’ In Acts, they seem a bit frozen at first:
‘Men of Galilee, why are you standing around looking at the sky?’
‘Well, because when we turn around and go back into the city, we’ll still have a lot of unanswered questions…and Jesus won’t be with us in the same way…and well, we still do hope that God will get rid of the Romans, but it seems that Jesus wants us to hope and wait for something more…something bigger…and we’re not really sure what that is…or how we’ll know…’ (they knew…)
Now back to the twenty-first century…
My other vocation is medicine, and I work part-time as a hospice physician…and I can tell you that hope is a huge issue for us and for our patients and their loved ones. We do tend to talk quite openly with people about death, and because of this, it’s not that uncommon for other medical professionals to say things like ‘oh, you hospice people—you just take away patients’ hope!’ I don’t actually think that’s true, and most of us feel that one of our most important tasks is to help people expand what they hope for.
Not surprisingly, if you ask most dying people what they hope for, the first thing they’ll say is ‘I want to be cured,’ or, ‘I want to wake up tomorrow and have the cancer be gone.’ I don’t think it’s our job to squash those hopes—I would probably want the very same thing. And I don’t think there’s much point in pretending we don’t want something when we really do…
However, in hospice, we certainly do try to help people expand their hope—to try and imagine/identify other things they might hope for—even if they don’t get cured: for example,
‘I want to be remembered’ - ‘I want my children/spouse/partner/parents to be safe and cared for’ - ‘I want to be free of pain’ - ‘I want to be forgiven’ - ‘I want to be reconciled with my son/sister/father/friend/God’.
This can be a really life-changing (or eve life-giving) experience for people.
Unfortunately, not everyone is able to do it. One example was Mr Martinez (not his real name) - a man in his mid-70’s who had end stage lung cancer. It was not likely that he would live more than a few weeks. And even though the oncologist had told Mr. M that he would not be getting any more chemotherapy (because it would just make him weaker), Mr. M simply would not hear that. Every day, as the nurses and doctors came by his room, he’d ask, ‘when will I get my next chemotherapy? I’m going to get better. I’m getting stronger.’ Because the only thing he wanted was to be cured, he could not and would not imagine anything else that he might hope for. And this caused a lot of problems…
He was getting weaker. He was no longer able to get out of bed by himself or to bathe himself, but he refused to let additional helpers come into his house. His wife was getting exhausted. He and his daughters had had a troubled relationship and they wanted to start to get some closure on their relationship and to say good-bye to him, but he refused to have those conversations—because he was convinced he was getting better.
Mr. M’s inability to expand his hope caused physical and emotional exhaustion for his family and also made their grieving harder after he died. I also think it made his life smaller. If he had been able to hope for more—to hope for and to work for reconciliation with his daughters, or to hope that his wife would get the help and care that she needed—even while he continued to hope for his own cure—a lot of peoples’ lives would have been a lot better. But he simply could not do it. He hoped for one thing and one thing only. And a lot of people suffered as a result.
Are our hopes too small? Is our vision of God’s kingdom too small? Too narrow? Do we grasp particular hopes or specific visions too tightly and then become unable to receive something much bigger?
Again, I am not trying to say that having specific or particular hopes is somehow bad or wrong. It’s not. It’s normal…we can’t help it, and if we never had particular hopes or particular desires or particular passions, we would never act—we’d still be standing around in a field looking at the sky.
But God calls us to relax our grip on our particular hopes—hopes for our lives, hopes for the Church, for the world, for God’s kingdom—God calls us to relax our grip on particular hopes—to be open to the divine unexpected—just enough so that we can receive more…imagine more…envision more…love more.
The question is…do we dare?