• Acts 1:1-11
• Psa 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
• Eph 1:17-23
• Matt 28:16-20
Pope Saint Leo the Great (c. 400-461), in a sermon on the Ascension, wrote, “Since then Christ’s Ascension is our uplifting, and the hope of the Body is raised, whither the glory of the Head has gone before, let us exult, dearly-beloved, with worthy joy and delight in the loyal paying of thanks. For today not only are we confirmed as possessors of paradise, but have also in Christ penetrated the heights of heaven…”
Fifteen centuries later, in his second volume of Jesus of Nazareth (Ignatius, 2011), Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the central place of joy and delight in the Solemnity of the Ascension, stating, “The joy of the disciples after the ‘Ascension’ corrects our image of this event.”
What is need of correction? The notion that Jesus, by ascending into heaven, has gone away and is now somehow distant from mankind. But if that were true, Benedict pointed out, it doesn’t make sense of the “great joy” expressed by the disciples journeying to Emmaus after Jesus had blessed them, “parted from them and was taken up to heaven” (Lk. 24:51-53).
Nor would it explain why the disciples, having witnessed the ascension of Christ—as we hear in today’s first reading—immediately set about selecting a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:12-26). Rather than being depressed and listless, the disciples were filled with anticipation and a growing understanding of their mission. The opening of the Acts of the Apostles does not flinch from showing that the disciples, even after the Resurrection, were still coming to grips with the exact nature of Jesus’ intentions for the Church and for the world. Between his Resurrection and the his ascension, Jesus spent about forty days instructing the apostles, “speaking about the kingdom of God”. Yet they still asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
As Benedict noted, “Jesus counters this notion of a restored Davidic kingdom with a promise and a commission.” The promise is the gift of the Holy Spirit and of his own continual presence, as heard in the final words of Matthew’s Gospel: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” This promise of the Holy Spirit was fulfilled in a most dramatic and definitive way at Pentecost. It is also fulfilled at every baptism and confirmation and celebration of the Eucharist, for all of the sacraments “are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par 1116).
And it is fulfilled in other ways as well, for the Holy Spirit works tirelessly, through the proclamation the Word of God, through special charisms, and through the many hidden graces offered to us, if we are only willing to see and accept them.
The great commission, stated in both Acts 1 and Matthew 28, is clear and succinct: to be witnesses of Jesus Christ throughout the world, making disciples and baptizing them in the name of the Triune God. Jesus did not ascend into the presence of the Father to “get away” or to be silent, but so he can give himself continually and in perfect love to his bride, the Church. The Apostle Paul, in today’s reading from his letter to the Ephesians, pointed out that the risen Christ is “far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion”, having “put all things beneath his feet”.
But the Church, he said, is Christ’s body, “the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” Christ especially comes to us and fills us when we, members of his Mystical Body, receive the Eucharist, which expresses and communicate his love in a most profound way (cf. Catechism, par. 1380).
The Ascension, then, is both a going away and a coming. “‘Ascension’ does not mean departure into a remote region of the cosmos but, rather,” observed Benedict, “the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy.”
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the June 5, 2011, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)