The Ascension of the Lord (Year C)

The Feast of the Ascension of the Lord is celebrated in connection with World Communications Day. We are invited to reflect upon the diversity of media of social communication and how they influence our lives.

Commentary on Acts 1:1-11; Hebrews 9:24-28,10:19-23; Luke 24:46-53

THE FIRST READING and the Gospel today seem to be in contradiction. Although both are written by Luke, the Gospel says that Jesus’ ascension was on Easter Sunday and the Acts of the Apostles says it was 40 days after the resurrection. The Gospel also seems to say that the resurrection and the ascension are one thing while the Acts seems to say they are two separate events.

In fact, the ascension is part of the resurrection. Resurrection emphasises that Jesus has entered a new life and not just that he recovered his previous life. The ascension emphasises that the risen Jesus is together with the Father, that he shares the place and dignity of the Father.

 Real meaning of Ascension

The real meaning of the Ascension is in the Second Reading, a passage from the magnificent Letter to the Hebrews. The author makes a clear distinction between the role of Jesus and that of the Jewish High Priest. Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands; he entered the dwelling place of God himself. Nor, unlike the High Priest, did or does Jesus enter the sanctuary again and again, as the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies every year. Nor did he, again unlike the High Priest, offer blood that was not his own, the blood of goats and bulls. Jesus entered God’s presence by the spilling of his own blood on the cross. “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many (that is, of all); and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

Washed totally clean

How are we to share in all of this? It is again put very well in the second part of the Second Reading: “Since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assistance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”

Jesus has totally replaced the old way, the old covenant. The place where God is is the new Holy of Holies. Jesus is the curtain through which we, all of us sharing in the priesthood of Christ, have access to that presence. That is the meaning of the Ascension, which we celebrate today.

Therefore, we have no need to fear. We have freedom and, by the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, we can go into the holiest place. This is the path which has been opened for us through our baptism and our participation in the life of the Christian community.

Continuing the work of Jesus

But before we go to share Jesus’ glory, there is work to be done. When Jesus left us, he made it clear that he wanted us to carry on the work he had begun. He said that we could do the same things he did and even greater. So before leaving them, he tells his disciples to go back to Jerusalem and there wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

This experience will be their baptism when they will become filled with the very Spirit of Jesus. But before Jesus leaves them, his disciples ask him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even at this late moment, they still do not understand the meaning of Jesus’ life and work. They still do not understand what kind of Messiah he is.

Jesus will not just restore the Kingdom of Israel; he will establish a new Kingdom altogether. This kingdom will be open to include all the people of the world. It will not be a political force or a military power. Rather, it will be – as the Preface of the Mass of Christ the King says,

An eternal and universal kingdom:
a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.

The disciples will soon learn this, accept it and promulgate it everywhere. For, after they receive the Spirit of Jesus themselves, they themselves will begin to inaugurate the Kingship of God not only in Israel, in Jerusalem and Judea but in time to the very ends of the earth. This is their mission – and ours: to carry the message of Jesus to the whole world.

As Jesus spoke, he is covered by a cloud, clearly indicating the enveloping presence of God. Jesus can no longer be seen. But the Ascension should not be understood too literally, as if Jesus floated up into the sky to a place called ‘heaven’. Rather he is wrapped in the all-embracing presence of his Father, symbolised by the cloud.

Lower your eyes

As Jesus disappears from their sight, the disciples continue to gaze upwards into the sky. It is then that two men wearing white clothes stand beside them and say: “Men of Galilee, what are you doing looking at the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Did they take these words to mean that they, in their lifetime, would see him return? Time would show that that was not the meaning of the messengers’ words. The nameless messengers in white are understood to be angels, direct representatives of God and indicating the importance of what is happening. They were also present at the resurrection.

A new lesson

The disciples have a new lesson to learn: they will not now find Jesus in the sky, in “heaven”. The Jesus they knew before the crucifixion has left them for good. They have to go back to Jerusalem. There, through the outpouring of the Spirit of the Father and Jesus on them, they will begin to understand and grow in understanding. If they want to find Jesus, they will find him in the Christian community, in those they mix with every day of their lives.

Every time they receive the love of a brother or sister, it is the presence of Jesus. Every time they share their love with a brother or sister, they are making Jesus present to that person. They – and we – are to be Jesus in this world. We are to be the visible presence of Jesus. It is really a great challenge and a rather scary responsibility.

When people see me, do they see Jesus? When people see me, do they want to know Jesus? When people see me, do they want to join our community, share our life, and take the Gospel as the foundation of their life? That is the meaning of the Ascension.

Today we gather here not only to remember something that happened a long time ago; we are also here to remind ourselves that when Jesus left us he gave us a very important mission. That mission was and is to continue his loving and redemptive presence in the world. Let us ask him today to help us, together with him, to carry out that huge responsibility in the way he wants.

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