“He said to them: ‘… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into 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’” (Acts 1:7-11).
Forty days ago, we celebrated the miraculous Resurrection of Jesus from the dead and joyful the start of the Easter season. Finally, after millennia of prophecies and expectation, the promise that humanity would be redeemed and restored in its relationship with God was fulfilled. Now Christ had risen in glory and conquered death by His Passion, allowing humanity to once again be united with its loving Creator (c.f. 2 Peter 1:4). This reunification of the disciples and their beloved Teacher was indeed a cause for celebration! What intense feelings of love and wonder must have resounded in the apostles’ hearts after their Master, Teacher, and Savior had been cruelly put to death only a few days ago. They believed that Jesus’ return meant that He would now “restore the kingdom to Israel” to finish His earthly ministry (Acts 1:6).
“Not so, not yet,” Jesus corrects them (c.f. CCC 672). Instead, it was now time for Him to join the Father in Heaven since He had accomplished the Mission of atonement that He had been sent to earth for on the Cross (c.f. John 19:30). With that, Jesus was taken up before His followers into Glory. While they were still watching, whether out of wonder, awe, confusion, or fear as what to do next (perceptibly without Jesus), two heavenly messengers appear and urge the disciples not to stand there, looking up. Jesus would come again, they promised. Meanwhile, there was a mission to undertake; they were to go and wait for the Spirit, Who would help them take the next steps towards completing Jesus’ final instructions, which were, as St. Pope John Paul II put it, “the faithful expression of the Father’s will.”
Before He was taken up, Jesus said to the disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). Christ was planning something bigger than establishing a temporal kingdom on earth, as the Jews commonly thought their awaited Messiah would bring.
The Apostles, moreover, were instructed to teach— to proclaim the Good News to the whole world. And they were to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus, they were to speak explicitly about the Kingdom of God and about salvation. The Apostles were to give witness to Christ to the ends of the earth. The early Church clearly understood these instructions and the missionary era began. And everybody knew that this missionary era could never end until the same Jesus, who went up to heaven, would come back again. (St. John Paul II, “Homily on the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord,” May 24, 1979)
We, too, in a sense, can stand with the apostles, looking heavenward to that place where our Lord ascended. We, too, can experience that intense wonder deep within each of us which transforms fear and tragedy, insecurity and tension into a peaceful certainty that floods the heart with loving warmth from God. From this, the same question posed to the disciples nearly two thousand years ago is asked of each of us even today: why do you stand looking up? The Church’s mission has always been that of the Great Commission, to spread the glorious, joyful, and redemptive news of Christ’s rising from the dead (c.f. John 3:16). As Saint Augustine testified, we are the Church and are commanded to accept this mission and not stand idly by in either amazement or apathy!
Certainly, Holy Mother Church’s evangelization has endured obstacles, dogmatic disputes, and other setbacks over the centuries in bringing the Good News to the ends of the earth. No matter the challenge, the Church always pulls through since she has been founded by Christ Himself with the promise that “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). As the disciples and the Blessed Mother would experience on Pentecost Sunday, it is the Holy Spirit, the gift of the Father, Who is the source of the Church’s strength. It is He Who guides the Church in the way of Truth in the spreading of the Gospel, doing so through the power of God and not by means of the imperfect wisdom or strength of man.
After having undergone the humiliation of His passion and death, Jesus took His place at the right-hand of God; He took His place with His eternal Father. But He also entered heaven as our Head whereupon, in the expression of Leo the Great, the glory of the Head became the hope of the body… our nature is with God in Christ. And as man, the Lord Jesus lives forever to intercede for us with Father. At the same time, from His throne of glory, Jesus sends out to the whole Church a message of hope and a call to holiness. Because of Christ’s merits, because of His intercession with the Father, we are able to attain justice and holiness of life, in him… The power of the glorified Christ, the beloved Son of the eternal Father, is superabundant, to sustain each of us and all of us in the fidelity of our dedication to God’s Kingdom.
The efficacy of Christ’s Ascension touches all us in the concrete reality of our daily lives. Because of this mystery it is the vocation of the whole Church to wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. (St. John Paul II, “Homily on the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord,” May 24, 1979)
As part of the “New Evangelization,” we are reminded of this command to reveal the Truth of our resurrected Lord through our words and actions in accordance with how we are called to live as Christians, that is, with love (c.f. John 13:34-35). Like the evangelizers before us, we can expect face challenges when spreading the Gospel message, namely persecution (c.f. John 15:18, Romans 8:35-39, 2 Timothy 3:12, 1 Peter 4:16-19). Ah, but what a price to pay for the glory of God!
Remember, too, that Christ promised that He would always be with us in our ministry (c.f. Matthew 28:20, Galatians 2:19-20)! As Pope Francis noted during his fourth general audience, Jesus is no longer “in a definite place in the world as He was before the Ascension… He is now in the lordship of God, present in all space and time, next to each of us.” We can always turn to Him in prayer; He, in turn, will sustain us with strength, grace, and Love. Given the difficulty of our task (often requiring great sacrifice on our part), this is indeed a great comfort! In addition, it is Christ as both God and man Who brings our humanity before God to intercede for us. Finally, the Ascension of the Lord is also our Feast because we have ascended with the Lord! The Feast presents an opportunity to reflect upon the relationship between our profession of faith and our daily life. It is the start of the evangelization of the world by Christ’s disciples and the call for us to do that same Work, started nearly two millennia ago, in joyful witness to the Redeemer of the world.
The Solemnity of the Lord’s Ascension must also fill us with serenity and enthusiasm, just as it did the Apostles who set out again from the Mount of Olives “with great joy” (Luke 24:52). Like them, we too, accepting the invitation of the “two men in dazzling apparel”, must not stay gazing up at the sky, but, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit must go everywhere and proclaim the saving message of Christ’s death and Resurrection. His very words, with which the Gospel according to St Matthew ends, accompany and comfort us: “and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20). (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “Homily of His Holiness During the Pastoral Visit to Cassino and Monte Cassino,” May 24, 2009)
Thomas Wong is an undergraduate at The Catholic University of America, currently studying abroad in Rome, Italy.