Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23 or Hebrews 9:24-28, 10:19-23; Luke 24:46-53
Ascension Day is a day of Mystery. Jesus leaves his disciples to go back to the heavenly Father and promises to return. He concludes his earthly ministry and now begins the mission of the church. In today’s gospel the disciples are saying goodbye to Jesus and we read the intimate moment of farewell between friends. As he prepares to depart from the earth he offers them his parting gifts: the gift of understanding so that they can now fully comprehend the meaning of the Scriptures; the promise that they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit; a final loving blessing and promise that he will not abandon them but be with them till the end of times. The reaction of the disciples shows a striking transformation. Luke tells us that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, praising and worshipping God. They were now certainly different from the frightened little band that had gone into hiding, run away from all authorities in Jerusalem particularly after the crucifixion. Now they are new persons, strengthened with faith and with the hope of the future. The Lord instructed them to be his witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the world but they were also told to await the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Heavenly messengers stand beside the apostles as an evidence of god’s continued assistance. They assure the apostles that the Lord will come back to them as they had seen him go up to heaven accompanied by the clouds.
This Feast of the Ascension commemorates the elevation of Christ into Heaven by His own power in the presence of His disciples on the fortieth day after His glorious Resurrection. This Ascension of Jesus completed His earthly work of our redemption. Through His numerous apparitions to hundreds of people between the Day of His glorious Resurrection and the Day of His Ascension, Jesus proved two things. First of all, He proved that He was the promised Messiah. Secondly, He proved that through He who overcame death, those who persevere in their living faith shall also overcome death and inherit the Kingdom of God. St. Augustine believes that the observance of the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus is of apostolic origin and after the 5th century, St. Augustine insisted on its universal observance. The scripture readings of today particularly first and the third tell us about the Ascension. Jesus their beloved master was taken up from among their midst and the angels tell them to go and search for him among the living and not among the dead. They are now called upon to think in a new way, to visualize Jesus as a universal person.
The First Reading taken from the Acts of the Apostles, where Luke tells his friend Theophilus that in his earlier book he wrote an orderly account about what Jesus had done and taught from the beginning of His ministry until the day when He was taken up to Heaven after giving instructions to the apostles whom He had chosen. Now he gives account of his ministry of preaching teaching and fellowship where he allowed them to talk and touch. Then Jesus commanded the disciples not to leave Jerusalem until such time as they had been baptized with the Holy Spirit in fulfilment of the promise of the Father. He even corrects their doubts about the meaning of the kingdom. He tells them: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” He tells them that Ascension is the culmination of his mission on earth. Then comes the cloud that takes him away and he disappears from their sight. They have the message that Jesus shall return in the same way that He was taken up into Heaven.
St. Paul tells us through today’s Second Reading from the Letter to the Ephesians that while awaiting that moment we should lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We are reminded that there is One Body of Christ and one Spirit of God. The Body of Christ is the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church that Jesus has instituted on earth. To this Body and Spirit, we have been called to the one hope of our calling, to one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. Paul reminds the Ephesians of the marvellous generosity and goodness of God who had made them one in Jesus and called them to be sharers of the glory of Christ which was the eternal glory of God. He prayed that God would enlighten their minds to try to understand and appreciate the marvellous things God had done for them through incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord.
The optional Second Reading from the Letter to the Hebrews describes the experience of the Ascension in very biblical language, highly redolent of the Hebrew (Old) Testament. Christ is our one and only High Priest. He did not, like the Temple’s High Priest, enter a humanly-built sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, but entered directly into the sanctuary of God’s presence on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the former high priest entered the Holy of Holies every year with “blood not his own”, the blood of animals. Otherwise, Jesus would have to suffer on our behalf again and again.
The Gospel tells us that Jesus has now moved away from them as he was teaching to them. Now what Ascension says is this: Jesus is totally and forever reunited with the Father. The actual words of Acts are that “a cloud took him from their sight”. Now a cloud in Scripture is very often a symbol for God as we have other symbols like the thunder, mountain, wind, fire and so on. So the expression that a cloud took him away means that God the Father took his incarnate Son back to himself. And that is also the meaning of Mark in today’s Gospel that the “Lord Jesus…was taken up into heaven”. They will not now find Jesus in the sky, in “heaven”. They are now called upon to “lower their eyes”. They have to go back to Jerusalem. Jesus is to be found and made present by them and in them. They and we in word and deed are to tell and re-tell the story of Jesus’ life, suffering, death and resurrection. They – and we – are to call people to a radical conversion, to forgiveness of their sin through an intimate reconciliation with God, with their brothers and sisters and with the world in which they live and are a part.
Luke is the only Gospel that Chronicles the ascension of Jesus. In the Gospel it takes place on Easter day whereas in the Acts of the Apostles it takes place after 40 days. We do not have to choose between them. The point is that the earthly ministry of Jesus is now complete and the mission of the church has begun. The Ascension story follows a similar pattern of other biblical departure scenes. In those scenes there is always found a Blessing, the departure, a response from the witness and finally an act of obedience. All of these elements are found in the Ascension narrative here. With the Ascension story, the Gospel ends where it is started, namely in Jerusalem. The final act of the disciples is to worship. This is a fitting conclusion to the Gospel and perhaps the only appropriate response a reader could give. The wonderful things that were promised in the infancy narrative and throughout the ministry of Jesus have been accomplished. Jesus has returned to the father and the work of the church has begun. However, he tells the Apostles as he would tell us today that we must be fully prepared for the mission and fully equipped to proclaim the Good news. That is why he tells them how important it is that they await for the coming of the Holy Spirit who will guide them in their work. Their need for further transformation is apparent from the question they ask Jesus during those final moments he is spending with them. Still bound by earthly interests they ask him the time when the kingdom would be restored. In response, Jesus steers their thoughts towards the Father and the Plan of Salvation God has set in place. The Ascension likewise directs their attention to a kingdom but not a kingdom of this world.
Today, on the feast of the Ascension, we remember the “exaltation” of Jesus, as he is raised up to share equal glory with his Father. Jesus, before he leaves his disciples, gives them their mission. Jesus, who confined himself to the people of Israel, tells them to continue his work all over the world. They will be able to do what Jesus himself could not do. “He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father”. They will be able to preach the Gospel to the whole world. This mission involves the call to evangelise people, secondly to continue the healing work of Jesus, thirdly they will receive the power from the Holy Spirit, and finally the Christian community is never alone. God the Father, the Son Jesus and the Holy Spirit will always be with them. This feast reminds us that Jesus is present in our hearts. He is present in His apostolic Church. He is physically present in the Holy Eucharist and in the Sacred Tabernacle. As mysterious as it appears, while He has ascended, our faith affirms to us that He is still here with us.
The Ascension of the Lord affirms that Jesus was the Messiah. St. Luke emphasized that the proclaiming of repentance and the forgiveness of sins was to be proclaimed in His Name. This emphasis, in “His Name,” shifts the faith of the believers from Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, to the divinity of Jesus. “For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell bodily.” At the same time Ascension of the Lord Jesus opened the door for the beginning of the Divine ministry of the Holy Spirit. Here Jesus raised His hands and blessed His disciples. The blessing of Jesus was not just an ordinary blessing. It was a blessing from the True High Priest, He who is a priest forever, who has returned to the Father. Thus the moment of the Ascension, the living hope of all Christians has been for the Second Coming of Christ, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him. It is also the hope that since his ascension, He has been the Mediator between God and humankind. The ascension of our Lord took place a long time ago but his parting words are to be taken to heart and carried out today courageously like the Apostles to be his witnesses in the world of today.
Fr Eugene Lobo SJ, Rome