I must confess that, over all the years of my ministry, I have often wondered why the Feast of the Ascension is not treated with even greater joy and solemnity than it has. It’s a day that explodes with good news and a day that brings gifts. It should be, in my opinion , celebrated with almost as much joy and reverence as Christmas and Easter.
Why do I say that? Because this Feast marks the cementing of the bridge by which we, as human beings, can pass over, after death, into the Kingdom of God. It was the very Ascension of Jesus Christ, from this earth, to the right hand of the Father, that made it possible. So, in many ways, this is our Liberation Day. This is the day that the wood of the manager and the wood of the cross become fused into a bridge to the Divine.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! And that rising is for us –for you and for me.
The Ascension does not mark the end of Jesus’ relationship with His Church but rather the beginning of a new way of His relating to the world – in and through His Church. This way includes every one of us who bear His name. We have also ascended – with the Lord. When viewed with the eyes of living faith the Ascension is capable of transforming the way we view ourselves and live our daily lives.
You see, Jesus Christ bridged heaven and earth. Through His Incarnation, His Saving Life, Death and Resurrection, we have been set free from the consequences of sin, including the sting of death
But we can’t keep our eyes looking up at the heavens as we commemorate this Feast of the Ascension. Because during Christ’s ascension, into the heavens, he directed that tiny band of 11 men who accompanied him not to look upward but to look down and to look around.
So let’s set the stage a bit. Here you have a band of 11 ordinary men. Could any group of people be more human, more ordinary, more dysfunctional, more unpromising? How much more obvious could human frailty be than in this group? Here we have a group that has committed within it treachery, cowardice, denial– to name but a few of the weak points – these are the same men who would become the pillars of our Church!
In verse 18, the Risen Jesus claims universal power in heaven and on earth. Since this universal power belongs to the Risen Lord, he gives the eleven a mission that is universal. They are to make disciples of all nations. And Baptism is the means of entrance into the community of the Risen One – the Church. The end of Matthew’s Gospel also contains the clearest expression in the New Testament of Trinitarian belief. It may have been the baptismal formula of Matthew’s church, but primarily it designates the effect of baptism, the union of the one baptized with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So here we have one of the first concrete steps of that bridge to the Divine. The fact that, through our Baptism, we are brought in union with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
But wait, the gifts of the Ascension don’t stop here but they continue. Because the next thing that Jesus tells them is this “And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (20). Does that have a special ring to it ? Those words have a special ring to them because (1) he leaves us the gift of the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, our Guide, our constant presence. We talked about that last week.
But (2) it is also the Eucharist that confirms these words “I am with you.” Christ said to his Apostles, “Go forth . . . and teach all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” From Christ the way of Christian initiation leads directly to the Eucharist: “I am with you,” “I am with every one of you.” “I become part of your flesh and blood.” “I share your very existence.” That’s the second gift of the Ascension.
So we have two gifts on this Feast Day. But are we to receive them and say “thank you.” ? Well, “thank you” is nice but not really enough. Because filled with the Holy Spirit at our Confirmation and fortified by the gift of the Holy Eucharist (every day if we want it), we are expected to go forward as those 11 humble men did and make disciples of all men.
Disciples of all men. Surely, you must be jesting. Me? Yes, YOU!
The Christian vocation is about learning to live this new relationship in Christ together, with the Father, through the Holy Spirit and for the sake of a world that still awaits its full redemption. The Feast of the Ascension is not some kind of Intermission but a continuation of the Redemption of Jesus Christ. It’s a call to continue that mission while we are here on this earth.
Think about it. Look around this Church today. Any empty space means that we are not doing our job.Now many have just sort of given up going to Church. Some use the pretext of saying I can pray anywhere to God, I don’t need to go to Church. Others, have seen enough of the dark side of the institutional Church that they have just folded their cards and left the table.
But our job – yours and mine – is to make disciples of all men and women. How do we do that? We start with the way we live our lives. We live our lives in such a manner that others notice that there is something special about us. Our kindness, our civility, our concern, our compassion are all more heightened than in others, Drawn to that kindness, compassion and concern, our friends, our neighbors, our associates must wonder why? Why are we the way we are?
And, along the way, in one form or another, we need to open the door to why we live the life we do. We need to find a way to talk about where we go every Sunday. We need to find a way to talk about why we come here every Sunday. And, we need to remind our friends and Catholics that we too believe you do not need a Church to pray. But we also need to remind them that it is ONLY in the Church that we can receive the Holy Eucharist. We need to let them know that we believe that the gift of the Holy Eucharist strengthens us on our journey, that the gift of the Holy Eucharist is the sum and the substance of what our faith is all about.
It’s not enough to just live our faith. Our faith needs to be brought out into the open. We are not closet Catholics. We are Catholics who come here, every Sunday, with open hearts and minds. Catholics who revere and treasure the gift of the Eucharist. Catholics who understand that a bridge to a divine life has been built for us through the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. His gift is beyond anything. But he also commands us : Go and make disciples of those you know. – both here and afar. Let them know through your love of Jesus Christ that their presence with you, at Mass, completes the body of Christ and brings the Ascension of Christ into its full glory.