THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD
Though the First and Second readings and the Responsorial Psalm are common for all three years A, B and C, the Gospel readings differ on Ascension Sunday. In year A the Church reads from Matthew, in year B from the longer and canonical ending of Mark (Mk 16:15-20) and in year C from the last chapter and verses of Luke (Lk 24:46-53). While Mark and Luke clearly mention the detail of Jesus ascending into heaven, Matthew does not. Yet, the scene in Matthew conveys a depth of meaning that the other Synoptic Gospels find difficult to match.
Matthew’s text is made up of two parts. The first of these is the encounter of the disciples with the Risen Lord on the mountain in Galilee and the second is the commission which the Risen Lord gives to his disciples. The encounter with the disciples is described as a matter of fact, as an event which takes place ordinarily. The response of the disciples to the appearance of Jesus is worship mixed with doubt. This is to indicate that the Risen Jesus comes to a Church that while it worships also wavers, while it believes also hesitates, while it has faith also doubts. This is the Church to which the commission is given and by sacrificing sensationalism, the text focuses on the words of the Risen Jesus. The universalizing “All” before the revelation which Jesus makes about his authority, before the commission that he gives the disciples, and before assuring them of his abiding presence, makes the whole scene universal in scope. The local Mission of Jesus has become now universal.
The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles already sets the tone for the Universal Mission which the disciples are given. Here they are commissioned to be witnesses not only in Jerusalem but to the ends of the earth. However, even as they are commissioned they are cautioned about two things. The first is patience. They must wait for the gift of the Spirit with openness and receptivity. The second is that it not for them to know too many details about time, place and the like. Their job is only to be witnesses. To use the words of St. Francis of Assisi, they are called to “Proclaim the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” They were meant to be those who could give evidence for what they have seen and heard. They could not be witnesses unless they had met the Risen Christ—unless their lives have been transformed by him. Their testimony was about him, not just about what happened long ago and far away. They were to give evidence about what they themselves have heard, seen, experienced.
The evidence that they were to give and the message that they were to proclaim, was good news. The message was hope and light and love. It was a message which Jesus himself had taught them and this is what they were to teach. This was why even before Jesus sent them out, he made explicit that the authority was his and not theirs. Their job was not to usurp this authority, but simply to welcome all peoples to make the same discovery that they had made in their faith journey, the discovery of the God of light and of goodness, of mercy and of compassion, of justice and of reconciliation -- and not impose their own cultural values or their own cultural traditions in the process. It was allowing others to make that discovery freely and joyfully. Authority has been given to Christ.
This was remembered by Christians in the first century as is evident in the community living which resulted as a result of the witness to the words and deeds of Jesus. They also realized that the Church was but the body of the Risen Christ and so had to continue to be an extension of him who was raised.
The missionary movement of the Church stemming from the Mission command of Jesus continued and does so even today. There are moments in the Church’s history in which we see truly gracious, noble, altruistic and selfless acts of dedication and service. A lot of good has been done in every continent and corner of the earth because the Church continued to take seriously the command of Jesus.
However, it is also true that sometimes we as Church seemed to have forgotten the real message and concentrated on getting converts to the faith at any cost. This has left in some places a memory of hurt, pain, loss and even suffering. We have sometimes missed the point. The mistake that we sometimes make is to forget that the authority rests with Jesus and not with us. Our role continues to be only that of proclaimers who will “disciple” peoples everywhere by teaching them through our lives what Jesus has commanded us and done in us.