The Meaning of the Ascension

Today is the traditional day for celebration of the feast of the Ascension in the Catholic Church (although many diocese – including the one in which I am now living – have transferred the solemnity to Sunday).  The description of Christ’s Ascension in both Mark’s Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles is preceded by a commissioning.  In Mark, prior to Jesus’ being “taken up into heaven” he instructs his disciples: “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the gospel to all creation.”  In Acts, Jesus promises, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. [And w]hen he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.”

The conjoining of Jesus instruction to his disciples and his Ascension, says a lot about the feast we celebrate today.  What happened that day long ago for the disciples was not simply a big bon voyage party for Jesus; and this day for us is not merely a memory of the historical event of Jesus’ ascension.  We are not meant to simply celebrate or marvel at the fact that Jesus ascended into heaven before the very eyes of his disciples.   Much more importantly for us, this day is a reminder of our commissioning by Jesus, our commissioning as his disciples, to preach the Gospel to all nations.

A couple of different thoughts struck me as I was thinking about Jesus’ charge to his disciples that day, and correspondingly, his charge to us.  The first is the notion that we, as Christians, live for the life of the world.  That is to say: my faith is not completely private; it is not just something between me and God.  Rather, as Christians we are called to be the Body of Christ to the world.  We are called to teach, to heal, to inspire, and to offer hope to the world, and we do so as an expression of our faith.  Henri Nouwen wrote, “Life lived Eucharistically is always a life of mission.  We live in a world groaning under its losses: the merciless wars destroying people and their countries, the hunger and starvation decimating whole populations, crime and violence holding millions of men, women and children in fear.  Cancer and AIDS, cholera, malaria, and many other diseases devastating the bodies of countless people;…it’s the story of everyday life filing the newspapers and television screens.  It is a world of endless losses…This is the world we are sent live in…with burning hearts and with open ears and open eyes.”

In the account of the Ascension contained in Acts, two men in white garments ask the disciples, “Why do you stand there looking at the sky?”  The meaning of which seems to me to be: Why do you stand there looking at the sky? You have work to do. You have a commission to fulfill. From now on, you are the body of Christ; you must proclaim the good news; you must embrace all the world with the abundant love of God.

The second thought that struck me about the conjoining of Jesus charge to his disciples and his ascension is that it is Jesus’ ascension that enables us to fulfill the charge he gave us.  At one level, Jesus departure is a source of sadness to his disciples.  And I have experienced something of that sadness on some occasions when I’ve used one of the Ascension passages in an exercise in Ignatian contemplation.  I’ve felt that impending loss, and found myself begging Jesus, “Please don’t leave.  Stay here with me.  I don’t want you to go.” 

Yet, Jesus’ physical departure actually adds rather than detracts.  The Ascension means that we go out and preach the Gospel not in fear and uncertainty, but in triumph, at one level because Jesus has gone home to his Father and we know that we will follow him, and at another because we have confidence of Jesus continuing presence among us.  Regarding the former, Pope Benedict observed that Jesus’ Ascension “has something triumphal, something reassuring about it….What has happened here is a realization in the human heart of the definitiveness of redemption so that knowledge can become joy.”  Victory has already been won for us.  So we can do what we are called to do in confidence and in joy.