SOLEMNITY OF THE ASCENSION
SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER (2018)
Psalm 47:2-3,6-7, 8-9
The Ascension of Jesus marked a significant turning point for the disciples and the early Church. It was not that long ago, with hearts heavied at the loss of their leader and friend, that the disciples were cowering behind locked doors in an upper room. It was not that long ago, that the hearts of the disciples were filled with joy by the appearances of the resurrected Lord. Throughout the Easter season a tableau has unfolded in the Scriptures which give us a glimpse of the early church.
The disciples had, no doubt, grown comfortable with a world in which Jesus tangibly appeared to them, strengthening them for the mission that would be theirs. Given a choice, the disciples would surely have preferred that Jesus remain with them. They were not accustomed to Jesus not being around, and the finality of the crucifixion struck them with such fear that they could only take comfortable refuge in an upper room. It is not as though Jesus had not tried to coach the disciples for His eventual return to the Father. Indeed, during His rather brief earthly journey, Jesus had tried to prepare the disciples for this day when his familiar presence would come to an end, when the disciples would at last be on their own to continue the work of redemption. The disciples, as they so often did, just failed to get the message.
The message would not be clear until the Spirit would descend on them, literally lighting a fire under the disciples, invigorating them for the task of creating a genuine community of believers in Jesus. What we celebrate today on this Ascension Sunday is the first, and necessary, step of a process that was meant to prepare the disciples for their roles in evangelizing the world. It would only be completed with the descent of the Holy Spirit which we will celebrate on Pentecost.
It was only right that the Lord should return to the Father who he spoke so lovingly about during His earthly ministry. It was essential that Jesus be reseated at God’s “right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion.” Only then would the disciples have the courage to boldly trust in the Lord, and “go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” Like children who have left the comfortable nest of their parents, the disciples would develop a confidence that would enable them to be “witnesses… to the ends of the earth.” It was not the absence of Jesus that the disciples would grow accustomed to. Rather, they would grow accustomed to a new and vibrant presence, just as real as the presence they felt when Jesus walked among them. As Mark tells us at the end of his gospel, after Jesus “was taken up into heaven,” the Lord “worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.”
The account of the Ascension in the Acts of the Apostles has the curious appearance of the “two men dressed in white garments” who stood beside the disciples as they watched Jesus being taken up into heaven. The disciples were lost in awe and wonder, saddened that their Lord was being taken from them. This mind-numbing experience is interrupted by the question of the angels, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” It’s time to get to work! It’s time to build a church! It’s time to do what Jesus asked you to do.
We are so much like the disciples in today’s Scriptures who no longer have the comfort of a physical presence. Yet we are so much better off than the first disciples, for we can recognize the presence of Jesus all around us. More importantly, we have a distinct advantage over the first disciples for we have something they could never have fully imagined, for we recognize Jesus who is present to us in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist. As real as the Lord who invited his disciples to place their fingers in His wounds, is the presence of Jesus in the bread and wine that becomes his very Body and Blood.
Today we celebrate the Ascension because it is not in any way a deprivation. It is, above all, the positive and necessary first step in building a Church. Furthermore, as the Collect of the Mass proclaims, we “rejoice with devout thanksgiving, for the Ascension of Christ your Son is our exaltation, and, where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope.” With the confidence which is born of genuine hope let us play our part in preaching the gospel and drawing others to Christ, that they might come to experience the peace and joy that only He can bring.