Today at Mass was an instance where I heard a Scripture passage that I've heard hundreds of times before, but it struck me in a new way. The passage was this, from the first chapter of Acts: "When they had gathered together they asked him, 'Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?' He answered them, 'It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.'"
Now, I've heard this passage discussed from a few different theological viewpoints. One typical line of thinking is "Oh, those silly apostles. They still don't understand that Jesus didn't come to establish a political kingdom. They still think He's all about defeating the Romans." Another line of thinking is more to the effect that Jesus is going to cut straight to Judgment Day, where He will rule the world from Jerusalem. And Jesus simply tells them, Be patient; not yet.
But something completely different came to mind today. Of late I've been mulling on the Biblical notion of the Church as the New Israel, sort of as quiet background music in the midst of other thoughts. I've kept in touch with a friend from my pre-Catholic charismatic days who is currently leading an Intercessory Worship group in his fellowship. And in a recent email from him, he quoted again this passage from Acts 15: "Hereafter I will return and rebuild the fallen hut of David: from its ruins I will rebuild it and set it up again, so that all the rest of mankind and all the nations that bear my name may seek out the Lord." He uses this passage, I think not entirely incorrectly, to point out that what will be rebuilt, that "fallen hut of David," is the worship of God's people. David, of course, was both king and priest and led Israel not only militarily but in worship. While I do not disagree with this friend, I assert that his understanding of this passage is truncated. He finds it to be a move of God that is just coming into full fruition now, with a "new" type of intercessory worship. I understand this passage, coming from a Catholic point of view, as part of the first ecumenical council of Jerusalem. The Apostles James quotes the prophet Amos and teaches he was prophesying the establishment of the New Covenant Church. For indeed, this is where worship is made new and fulfilled. This is where the perfect sacrifice is offered and where heaven and earth join together to glorify and praise God, and where worship transforms the worshippers because they encounter God Almighty Himself in a foretaste of heaven.
But, now let's go back to those apostles now watching Jesus ascend into heaven. If we put ourselves in their shoes in real time, they really had very little idea what was happening to them. Jesus told them He was going away, but how did they understand that? They had no idea what this promise of the Holy Spirit was that they were told to wait for. I don't think they picked this moment to ask Jesus a random political question, either. But they knew, on one level, that Jesus had taught them something about Israel. (Keep in mind that "Israel" as a nation had ceased to exist some 700 years earlier, when the 10 northern tribes never returned to their land. The former Judah was what was left.) It would seem reasonable that Jesus laid out for them the plan, which they completely did not yet understand, that the Gentiles would be brought to faith and hence "all Israel would be saved" (Rom 9-11), as the Jerusalem Council and Acts 15 hint at. But they had none of the lived experience to understand any of this yet. Any answer, any further information Jesus could have given at this point would have made no sense to them. But Jesus redirects them: "It is not for you to know the times and seasons." Understanding these things is not the key! "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes to you." I can just see Jesus perhaps consoled in His humanity, when faced with leaving the earth permanently, at the thought of everything that was in store for them in a just a few days' time, since the Holy Spirit would not come to them until He returned to the Father. It's like He was telling them: don't worry about trying to sort out understanding things abstractly for yourself. Just live what's given to you, because you know what? My Father IS restoring the kingdom as we speak! It's just that you can't see it, you have to live it. You might not even see it as you live it, but just be faithful, because it is happening. If I told you what was coming next, you'd never believe me anyway! Just be faithful to what I do tell you every day. Live faithfully; that's how the Father's plan gets carried out!