Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20
In the first reading we read how Jesus ordered His disciples not to leave Jerusalem until such time as they had received the promise of the Holy Spirit. It was the promise of the reception of the Holy Spirit, this promise being manifested today in the Catholic Church through the Sacrament of Confirmation. Jerusalem was chosen by God as the City in which the spiritual Kingdom of God was to be established. The reading describes how for 40 days Jesus was with them, teaching them and now he is taken to heaven by the Father. The reception of the Holy Spirit was very important because He had been chosen and sent by the Father and the Son to sustain Christianity in a new era of sacred history, the era of the Church and its mission.
Both the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of Mathew tell us about Ascension. The Ascension is not to be understood literally as if Jesus floated up into space on his way to “heaven”. Heaven should be conceived not as a place but as a relationship with God and God is everywhere in the whole universe. Jesus did not have to ‘go’ anywhere to be with his Father. The Ascension in reality is part of the Paschal Mystery. There are four inter-related parts which in fact is a single reality: suffering and death; resurrection; ascension; and the sending of the Spirit. If the resurrection says that the crucified Jesus is alive, the Ascension says that the living Jesus has entered into glory, sharing on an equal level the glory of his Father.
In the Second Reading St Paul tells the Ephesians that God put his power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. This is basically the meaning of the Ascension, namely, that Jesus, our triumphant Lord rules in glory over all creation.
Did the disciples really understand about Ascension and the mission? Some wondered when Jesus was going to restore the Kingdom of Israel. They were still in a state of great misunderstanding about the nature of Jesus’ mission – and their own. We see the patience of Jesus here and he will help them with the spirit to establish the Kingship of God all over the world. Jesus is now lifted up and goes into heave in a cloud. Cloud in the Old Testament symbolised the presence of God. The disciples had already experienced the cloud at the transfiguration. Now they will specially realise his presence.
And yet the disciples are lost in the new mystery. They go on looking into the sky, the heaven and they have to be reminded that they are totally mistaken. That is not where the Risen and Ascended Jesus is to be found. If they want to meet him again, they have to go back to Jerusalem, where, in a few days’ time, they themselves will be filled with the Spirit of God and of the Risen and Ascended Jesus. They will become the Body of the Risen and Exalted Jesus, his effective presence to “the ends of the earth”. It is like a holy sage who wanted to go in search of God to the Mountain. After a long journey and hardships he reached the top and looked for him there only to find a message from the Angel. “He has gone down the other side to be close to the people.”
Now the message of Jesus is before them: you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth. But he makes his message clear: “I will be with you till the end of times.” Then, in order to continue being with his disciples, Jesus had to leave them. His “old” presence in one human body, in one small corner of the world, reaching a small number of people, in one tiny period of history now gives way to a new presence that will reach the whole world in every age. From now on wherever there is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness…” wherever there is truth, love, compassion, justice, freedom, beauty the Spirit of Jesus is there.
Today’s Gospel has a similar message. While the scene in Acts takes place in Jerusalem, Matthew has the disciples back on their home ground in Galilee. For, it is in the familiarity of home, not up in the skies, that Jesus is to be found. They are at the mountain “where Jesus arranged to meet them”. This is not really an ascension scene. It is understood that the Risen Jesus is already in the glory of the Father. We have here rather an appearance of the Risen Jesus, an appearance that relies on faith. So, on the one hand they worship and, on the other, they have doubts – an experience all of us can have from time to time. The emphasis here is not on the appearance of Jesus but on what he has to say to his disciples. It is in three parts – past, present and future.
First, Jesus tells them that all authority of the Creator God himself has been given to him. To commit oneself totally to Jesus is to commit oneself to God.
Second, Jesus gives the command to “make disciples” of people everywhere. He is thus passing on much of his own authority to his disciples. Pentecost will be the confirmation of this. They are to do what he did. They will have the power to reconcile the sinful with God and with the community and to decide who are not yet ready for reconciliation and full participation in the community’s life. They are to teach, to heal, and to break down the divisions that separate people. They are to Baptise in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Third, the Risen and Ascended Jesus is not far away. He is with his followers and will be with them to the end of time. It is a reminder of the promise made at the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, before the birth of Jesus: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name will be called Emmanuel which means, God is with us.” and again later on, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” The gift of the Spirit is not mentioned but is clearly implied by the promise of the ongoing presence of Jesus.
Today’s feast then is a celebration of Jesus’ glory after his suffering and death – a glory in which we also hope to share. What happened to him will happen to us. At the same time, we celebrate the ongoing presence of the Risen Jesus among us, to be his witnesses in the world.