Ascension Sunday presents a paradox: Jesus leaves His apostles for Heaven, but He assures them He is always with them. What kind of departure was this?
Gospel (Read Mt 28:16-20)
Today’s Gospel records the end of Jesus’ forty days of post-Resurrection appearances and teaching. The account of what actually happened during those days is quite spare. We know that although Jesus appeared to His friends, His relationship with them was not as it had been before. He appeared and disappeared. He was often not immediately recognizable. Things had changed. As we work our way through today’s readings, we see that an even bigger change was about to take place.
As Jesus prepares to depart for good, He assembles the “eleven disciples” at a mountain in Galilee. He is now only with His inner circle of companions. Interestingly, we see a combination of faith (“they worshipped”) and doubt. Does this surprise us? It shouldn’t. In fact, this detail should strengthen our confidence that this is a truly honest, human account of what happened that day. Aren’t all of us, as we follow Jesus, curious admixtures of faith and doubt from time to time?
Jesus then makes a statement that is either true, or, if false, marks Him as a lunatic: All power in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Mt 28:18). Of course, a man who has come back from the dead can reasonably make a claim like this. What does He want His disciples to do, in view of His great power? He wants them to go out to “all nations” and make more disciples. They are to offer the blessing of baptism, which washes away sin and initiates the believer into life in Christ. They are to teach believers to obey all that He had taught them. In other words, they are to preach a life of faith and the good works that issue from that faith to all the families of the earth. The scope of this plan recalls the promise God made to Abraham to bless the whole world through him (see Gen. 12:3). What an expansive mission!
Think about what this plan must have sounded like to the Eleven gathered there. They were a motley crew of mostly uneducated and certainly non-influential men—fishermen, a tax collector, a political zealot, etc. It is doubtful any of them had ever left the boundaries of their own nation. Were these men ready to change the world? Surely this scenario was far beyond their ability even to imagine.
Fortunately, Jesus said something else that made all the difference: “And, behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). The apostles could have, justifiably, been confused at this point. Was He leaving or staying? How could He be departing and yet promise to be with them? We will need to examine our other readings for more on this story.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, when I doubt You can use me to spread Your kingdom, help me remember that You started with just eleven disciples.
First Reading (Read Acts 1:1-11)
The first verse of this reading tells us that its author, St. Luke, wants to continue a story he began in his “first book,” the Gospel of St. Luke. That book was devoted to a careful account of “all that Jesus did and taught until the day He was taken up” (Acts 1:1). This book (Acts) will show us how Jesus could both depart from and yet remain with His followers. The lesson begins with today’s reading.
We remember that even before His Passion and Resurrection, Jesus promised the apostles that Someone Else was coming. Now He tells them explicitly not to try to get started on their mission to “all nations” right away. They must wait for that Someone Else: “John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5). The apostles’ first question about this event revealed them to be focused on the wrong thing (again): “Lord, are You at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). It was not unreasonable for the apostles to be curious about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, as this was a Messianic hope of long-standing for the Jews. Notice that Jesus doesn’t rebuke them for their interest in David’s kingdom, but rather for their desire to know when it will happen. Jesus wants them instead to focus on their own work of being His witnesses: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Ironically, this work He gives them will actually bring about the restoration and fulfillment of the kingdom they earnestly seek. In due time, they will learn that this kingdom, as Jesus had told them earlier, is not of this world. The kingdom Jesus rules is not political; it is not confined to the borders of Israel. Through the preaching of the Gospel, Jews of all the tribes of Israel would find their way to it, as would Gentiles. His kingdom is the universal Church, spread out everywhere, “to the ends of the earth.”
Then, as the apostles were “looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him from their sight” (Acts 1:9). What does this mean? It will help us if we understand the symbolic significance of the “cloud” Jesus entered. It reminds us of the Transfiguration, when we get a glimpse of the glorified Jesus. It reminds us, too, of the “overshadowing” cloud of God’s presence in the worship of the Old Testament Tabernacle, filling the Holy of Holies as God and man met. That same cloud of God’s presence led the people of Israel to the Promised Land. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI tells us,
This reference to the cloud is unambiguously theological language. It represents Jesus’ departure not as a journey to the stars, but as His entry into the mystery of God. It evokes an entirely different order of magnitude, a different dimension of being… He enters into communion of power and life with the living God, into God’s dominion over space. Hence, He has not gone away, but now and forever by God’s own power He is present with us and for us. (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, Ignatius Press, pgs 282-283, emphasis added)
Now we get it! Jesus’ departure has only been a departure from our mode of existence. It is not cosmic but metaphysical. That is how He can be gone and yet still with us. In promising the apostles to send the Holy Spirit, He promises not only this new kind of presence with us but also a share in the great power of which He spoke in the Gospel reading. Did the apostles grasp this?
Not exactly. We see them staring off into space, probably trying to take it all in. Two angels caution them against “standing there looking at the sky” (Acts 1:11). Jesus has ascended into His rightful power and authority, having finished His earthly work for our Redemption. The apostles will not have to stare at the sky to see Him return in power (the meaning of the “cloud”). They will see Him return in power very soon—on the Day of Pentecost.
Jesus reigns on His throne now!
Possible response: Lord Jesus, it is a mystery to me how You can be gone and yet entirely present to me always. Help me believe it.
Psalm (Read Ps 47:1-2, 5-8)
It is impossible to read through this psalm without wanting to “clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness” (Ps 47:1). It expresses the jubilant praise of God’s people for the victory won by Jesus and His ascent to His rightful place of power and authority at God’s right hand. Ascension Sunday is the day for us to celebrate our God’s reign over all creation. The challenge for us now, of course, is to believe this is true. When we look around us, sometimes it is hard to see that Jesus, the King, is now establishing, expanding, and strengthening His kingdom on earth. Believe it! Let this psalm be our antidote to doubt. Sing out the response with all your heart on this day: “God mounts His throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord!”
Possible response: King Jesus, reign over me today.
Second Reading (Read Eph 1:17-23)
Read these verses carefully, and feel St. Paul straining to find language adequate to explain the dramatic, superabundant implications of our Lord’s Ascension into heaven. This is actually St. Paul’s prayer for his convert friends in Ephesus (and for us, too). What does he most desire for them? He wants them to ponder deeply, with the help of God, “the hope that belongs to [God’s] call, what are the riches of His glory in His inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe” (Eph 1:18). This is exactly what we need on Ascension Day! We need to feel St. Paul’s urgency over the difference it makes for our daily lives that Jesus is now seated on His throne, ruling over the world through His Church, “which is His Body, the fullness of the One Who fills all things in every way” (Eph 1:23). St. Paul will not allow us to think of the Ascension as simply a line in the Creed we recite at Mass. In every way he knows how, he wants to point us toward the hope, the riches, and the power that belong to us now because of the Ascension. May his prayer for us become our own, for ourselves and all the Church, today and always.
Possible response: Father, please grant me the understanding for which St. Paul prayed. My problems seem much smaller when I remember that Jesus is on His throne.