The Ascension of Jesus into heaven celebrates the fact that, after completing his work on earth, work that the Father had entrusted to him, Jesus returned to his rightful place at the right hand of the Father. However, this is only one side of the story. The other side is that, before he ascended into heaven, he entrusted a commission to his disciples and to all who believe in his name. This commission was to proclaim to every living creature, till the end of time, God’s unconditional love for them. This love was manifested not only in the sending of his only Son, but also in the Son’s rejection, crucifixion, and death. It was a love that was manifested, ultimately, in raising this Son on the third day and granting him his rightful place at the right hand of God.
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 is 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 had seen and heard. They could not be witnesses unless they had met the Risen Christ—unless their lives had 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 had heard, seen, and experienced.
This idea is reiterated in the Gospel text of today which begins with the commission of the risen Jesus to his disciples to go out into the whole world to proclaim the Good News of salvation. The Good News was that God had shown his unconditional love for the world by saving all people in Christ, his Son. The signs that would accompany this preaching and its acceptance were practical signs. These would be shown in action and could be summarized as Healing and Wholeness. The disciples followed the instructions of the Lord and continued the mission that he had inaugurated.
This Lord, whom the disciples obey, is indeed the Lord of the whole Universe. The second reading affirms that he has been given dominion over all persons, things, and situations and sits at the right hand of God. The Church, which he inaugurated, is his body which continues his work even today.
We need to ask ourselves some serious questions on the feast of Ascension. The first of these is whether we, as Church today, continue the mission of Jesus or whether we are still looking up at the sky like the disciples did, until they were reminded that the Mission had to be continued on earth. When we keep looking up to heaven for answers to questions that can be found on earth, we are still looking up to the sky. When we respond theoretically rather than practically to the problems of others, we are still looking up to the sky. When we expect God to do everything for us rather than ask him for help when we are faced with insurmountable odds, we are still looking up to the sky. We need to remove our gaze from the sky and bring it down to earth.
We also need to ask whether our focus is so much on the miraculous that we fail to find God in the ordinary events of life. While it is true that Jesus did promise his disciples that extraordinary signs would accompany belief in him, it is also true that he never used his miracles as proof of his divine identity. As a matter of fact, he consistently refused to give signs. He wanted people to find him and to find God in the ordinary, humdrum, mundane, everyday activities of life. If we are not able to find God in all things and find all things in God, it probably means that we are focusing too much on the extra-ordinary and stupendous and not enough on the fact that God, in Jesus, is all and in all.
We need to ask ourselves whether, in our enthusiasm to spread the Gospel of God, we have been honest to it or whether we have mangled and distorted it so much that it has become our personal and often bigoted and biased interpretation rather than God’s Good News. When we find that we are spreading the Good News by dint of human might and craft and not by listening to God’s Spirit of openness and sincerity and, when we find that our intentions in spreading this news are selfish and self-centered rather than selfless and altruistic, then we are guilty of not being true to God, to his Good News and to ourselves.
The feast of the Ascension reminds us that we, as disciples of Jesus, are today his body, mind, and heart. Jesus was true to himself and true to his Father. We need to be true to Jesus and true to his Father. If we are, then we can celebrate this feast with great joy knowing that, though the Lord is in heaven, he continues to be present on earth.