(Acts 1:1-11; Eph 1:17-23 or 4:1-13; Mk 16:15-20)
Homily starter anecdote: The disciples who completed Puccini’s opera Turandot. The Italian composer Giacomo Puccini wrote La Boheme, Madama Butterfly and Tosca. It was during his battle with terminal cancer in 1922 that he began to write Turandot, which many now consider his best work. He worked on the score day and night, despite his friends' advice to rest, and to save his energy. When his sickness worsened, Puccini said to his disciples, “If I don't finish Turandot, I want you to finish it.” He died in 1924, leaving the work unfinished. His disciples gathered all that was written by Turandot, studied it in great detail, and then proceeded to write the remainder of the opera. The world premier was performed in La Scala Opera House in Milan in 1926, and Toscanini, Puccini’s favorite student, conducted it. The opera went beautifully, until Toscanini came to the end of the part written by Puccini. He stopped the music, put down the baton, turned to the audience, and announced, “Thus far the master wrote, but he died.” There was a long pause; no one moved. Then Toscanini picked up the baton, turned to the audience and, with tears in his eyes, announced, “But his disciples finished his work.” The opera closed to thunderous applause and found a permanent place in the annals of great works. Jesus instructs us in his Ascension message to finish his work of saving mankind by proclaiming His Good News by words and deeds.
Introduction: Today’s readings describe the Ascension of the Lord Jesus into his Heavenly glory after promising the Holy Spirit as the source of Heavenly power for his disciples and commanding them to bear witness to him by their lives and preaching throughout the world. What is celebrated is Jesus’ exaltation and the end of his earthly existence as a prelude to the gift of the Spirit. The ascended Jesus is still with us because of his promise, "I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.” He is with us at all times and in all places, releasing a new energy upon the earth, the energy of the Holy Spirit to preach his Good News of salvation by bearing witness to him. Hence, today’s feast is the celebration of Jesus’ glory after his suffering and death – the glory in which we also hope to share. The Ascension and Pentecost, together, mark the beginning of the Church. The feast of the Ascension tells us that the Church must be a community in mission, guided by God’s Spirit and confident of God’s protection even amid suffering and death.
The Scripture readings explained: The first reading (Acts 1:1-11), gives an account of the event of Ascension as recorded in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. First, Jesus instructed his apostles to wait in Jerusalem for “the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5), so that they might become his “witnesses to the ends of the earth” by the power of the Holy Spirit. Then “a cloud took him from their sight” (Acts 1:9), and two Heavenly messengers in white garments gave them the assurance of Jesus’ return in glory.
Today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 47) sings, “God is king of all the earth,” (Psalm 47:3), celebrating God's universal Kingship. The Psalm was originally sung in connection with a cultic procession honoring the Ark of the Covenant. By his Ascension, the risen Lord likewise "mounts his throne" in glory, as we sing in the Psalm Refrain.
In the second reading (Eph 1:17-23 or 4:1-13): Paul explains the theological meaning of Jesus’ exaltation by saying, "May God enlighten the eyes of our hearts so that we may know the great hope to which we have been called" (Eph1:18). Our great hope is that one day we too will be ascending to Heavenly glory provided we complete our part of the mission entrusted to us by the ascending Lord. Our mission is to preach the Good News of salvation to the whole world by word and deed. We continue to receive the Divine assistance and spiritual gifts necessary for our Christian witness-bearing through the Gift of Jesus and the Father to us of the Holy Spirit living within us.
In today's Gospel, Jesus gives his final message, his final instructions, his final promise, and his final blessing to his apostles. Our mission, as recorded in Mark, Acts and Mathew, is to 1) proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mark.16:15). 2) "Preach the good news and be my witnesses:" (Acts 1:8). 3) “Make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Completing Jesus’ mission should be our goal in life, and the prospect of sharing the ascended Jesus’ Heavenly glory should be the driving force of our lives. Our message will only be validated as coming from God if it can be seen in our living with one another in peace and harmony.
Exegetical notes: A) The Ascension: Each Sunday we profess through the Creed, "He ascended into Heaven." Christ’s Ascension was the culmination of God’s Divine plan for Christ Jesus, his return to his Father with “Mission Accomplished." Jesus’ Ascension is the grand finale of all his words and works done for us and for our salvation. It was a culmination, but not the conclusion. One wonder is that though Jesus is now with God in glory he continues to remain with us, dwelling within us together with the Father and the Holy Spirit: "Lo, I am with you always." The Feast of the Ascension celebrates one aspect of the Resurrection, namely Jesus’ exaltation. He did not wait 40 days to be glorified at God’s right hand. That had already happened at his Resurrection. Like the 40 days after Easter during which He appeared to many in Israel, this public Ascension in to Heaven was given to us for our sakes. The 40 days allowed many to experience personally Jesus’ Resurrection and his being alive in a glorified body as fact to be counted upon, reality, and the fulfillment of prophecy. The focus of this Feast is the Heavenly reign of Christ, and the Lord’s being “seated at God’s right hand,” meaning He alone will be in control of the continuing plan of salvation through the Holy Spirit, unrestricted by time, space or culture. It is there, at the “right hand of God,” that Jesus continues to make intercession for all of us with the Father. Thus, the Paschal Mystery -- Jesus' passion, death, Resurrection, Ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit – is a single, unbroken Reality, which is to be understood by Faith. By His Ascension, Jesus, the risen Christ, True God and True Man, is One with the Father and the Holy Spirit in glory forever.
B) The Ascension account: The Biblical accounts of the Ascension focus not so much on the details of the event as on the mission Jesus gave to his disciples. For example, in the accounts narrated in Luke and Acts, the Ascension took place in Jerusalem. In Matthew and Mark, on the other hand, the event occurred in Galilee. All accounts, however, agree that the Ascension, a real event, happening in real time and observed by real people, took place on a mountain. In Luke and Acts, the Ascension happened forty days after the Resurrection, a period during which Jesus appeared repeatedly to his followers. In Matthew and Mark there is no indication of the time period between the Resurrection and the Ascension. The Gospel writers apparently were not aiming at accuracy of historical detail but were more concerned with transmitting Our Lord’s message.
C) The Ascension message: "Preach the Good News and be my witnesses:" Matthew, Mark and Acts record Jesus’ last words differently: 1) “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). 2) “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-21). 3) “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mark.16:15). All are in agreement that (a) Jesus gave his disciples a mission of bearing witness to him by preaching and living the Good News. They are to tell and re-tell the story of Jesus' life, suffering, death and Resurrection, Ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit. (b) He assured them of the Divine assistance of the Holy Spirit in the carrying out of this mission. There is a question you may have heard, which goes, “If you were accused of being a Christian, would they find enough evidence to convict you?” Today’s Gospel challenges us to provide enough evidence.
D) Christmas and Ascension: The Ascension is most closely related in meaning to Christmas. In Jesus, the human and the Divine become united in the person and life of one man. That's Christmas. At the Ascension, this human being – the Person in the risen, glorified body of Jesus – became for all eternity a part of who God is. It was not the spirit of Jesus or the Divine nature of Jesus alone that ascended to the Father. It was the risen Jesus, whole, alive and entire, in his glorified Body that ascended: a body which the disciples had touched, the body in which Jesus had eaten and drunk with them both before and after His Resurrection, a real, physical, but gloriously restored body, bearing the marks of nails and a spear. This is what ascended. This is what, now and forever, is a living, participating part of God. The Ascension, along with the Incarnation, is here to tell us that it is a good thing to be a human being; indeed it is a wonderful and an important and a holy thing to be a human being. It is such an important thing that God did it. Even more, the fullness of God now includes what it means to be a human being.
[Grounds for the defense of a literal Ascension: Two of the Evangelists, Mark (16:19-20), and Luke twice (Luke 24: 50-53; Acts 1: 6-12), recount a literal Ascension.
1) Mark says, "He was taken up into Heaven, and took His seat at the right hand of God" Mark 16: 19 Like all the evangelists, Mark was concerned with an accurate report of the events and teachings of Jesus' life on earth as the Messiah of God and Savior of humankind and the universe. Further, Mark is seen traditionally to be associated with Peter and to be the recorder of Peter's account of his experiences with Jesus during the three or so years of His life in flesh and time. Mark’s purpose was to save the materials of the eyewitnesses as these people were beginning to be eliminated by martyrdom, and to spread the Good News to other local Church communities as well as to his own. If the Ascension had not happened visibly, he would certainly not have said it did.
2) Luke, who declares specifically at the head of his Gospel the pains he has taken to verify the accuracy of the details of every event he narrates (Luke 1:1-4), declares his reason for this labor: "I, too, have decided,after investigating accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received" (Luke 1:3-4). In his Gospel account of the Ascension, Luke says, "Then He led them [out] as far as Bethany, raised His hands and blessed them. As He blessed them, He parted from them and was taken up to Heaven. They did Him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the Temple, praising God" (Luke 24: 50-53.
3) Luke wrote Acts, as he explains, as a continuation of his verified, accurate of "the narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us" (Luke 1:1), which had already been written down by "eyewitnesses." His verifications of the events in the later history of the Apostles events would certainly have followed the same painstaking labor he had employed in composing the Gospel and for the same reason -- certainty in the teachings Theophilus had received. Luke picks up the account with the 40-day period after the Resurrection, material he had not unfolded in the Gospel.
4) When he comes to the Ascension, Luke reports the initial question of the Apostles about the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel, meaning the Kingdom of God, Jesus' response, "It is not for you to know the times or seasons that The Father has established by His own authority" (Acts 1:6-7) and His promise that the Holy Spirit will come to them -- "you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).Thus, Theophilus and all of us are assured that the teachings we have from the successors of the Apostles come to us from the Holy Spirit Who, Jesus had told them before His death and Rising (and so told us, through them), "will not come unless I go."
5) Immediately thereafter, Luke reports, "When He had said this, as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him from their sight” (Acts 1:9). Not only does this "lifting up" complete the meaning and purpose of the "lifting up" of the crucifixion, it also states that the Ascension was a literal reality, just as His Resurrection was literally real and just as His death on the cross was literally real, and all that flows from this Paschal Mystery's reality is also real, from God and essential for belief.
6) That Luke meant the details he had so carefully gathered and checked to be taken literally is demonstrated by his inclusion of what happened next. He reports,
"While they [the Apostles and disciples] were still looking intently up at the sky as He was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, 'Men of Galilee, why are you standing there, looking at the sky? This Jesus Who has been taken up from you into Heaven will return in the same way as you have seen Him going into Heaven’"(Acts 1:10-11).
7) And now we see why it is so important for Theophilus (and for us, today), to understand that the Ascension was a literal reality; it is the promise of Jesus' own return to us in glory, to judge the living and the dead and to take us home with Him. As for the mountain, Matthew (28:16-20) mentions the mountain and ends with the declaration of the Lord that He will "be with you always, until the end of the age” Luke also reports the mountain, but not until he has dealt with the really important truths we have just examined. He ends his account with the report, "Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is a Sabbath day's journey away" (Acts 1:12)].
Life messages: 1) We need to be proclaimers and evangelizers: In today's Gospel, Jesus gives his mission to all the believers: "Go out to the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.” This mission is not given to a select few but to all believers. To be a Christian is to be a proclaimer and an evangelizer. There is a difference between preaching and proclaiming. “We preach with words but we proclaim with our lives.” As we celebrate the Lord’s return to His Father in Heaven – His Ascension -- we are being commissioned to go forth and proclaim the Gospel of life and love, of hope and peace, by the witness of our lives. On this day of hope, encouragement and commissioning, let us renew our commitment to be true disciples everywhere we go, beginning with our family and our parish, "living in a manner worthy of the call [we] have received.” Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, says: "All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the Faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients. ... Indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God's saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love."
2) We need to live a life of Christian joy in the presence of the ascended Lord. According to Luke, the disciples "returned to Jerusalem with great joy." Apparently, Jesus' exaltation and final blessing gave them, as it gives us, the assurance that, though absent, Jesus is still present, present even in the pain and sorrow we undergo. That is why St. Augustine assures us, “Christ is now exalted above the Heavens, but he still suffers on earth all the pain that we, the members of his Body, have to bear. He showed this when he cried out from above: 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?' and when he said: 'I was hungry and you gave me food.' While in Heaven he is also with us; and while on earth we are with him. He is here with us by his Divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in Heaven, as he is on earth, by Divinity, but in him, we can be there by love." “With a spirit of wisdom and insight to know him clearly,” we can discover Christ's presence at every turn of our life’s journeys to his final return at the end of time.
3) We have a teaching mission: Jesus taught us lessons of Faith, Hope, forgiveness, mercy, Redemption and Love. We cannot put these lessons on a shelf and ignore them. They stand before us in the person of Jesus. Although no longer visibly present in the world, He is present in his words. We must make his words real in our lives and in the lives of others. Christianity was meant to be a Faith in which Jesus’ followers would help and care for others, just as Jesus had done, and in so doing, care for Jesus in them. But the spreading of the Good News to all nations is not a goal that can be attained by human might and craft. This is why Jesus promises to empower his messengers with His abiding presence and that of the Holy Spirit. The challenge of sharing the Good News with all mankind should, therefore, begin with our admission that we have often been arrogant and overbearing. We must learn to be humble and let the Holy Spirit lead the way.
4) The ascended Jesus is our source of strength and encouragement: Perhaps some of the nagging doubts, which inevitably accompany the journey of Faith, could be lessened by our meditating on the Ascension and its implications. When we are too far from Faith to pray on our own, let us remember that we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Righteous, praying for us. When the trials of life feel too heavy to bear, we must remember that Christ will come again in glory, the same glory in which he arose from the tomb, the same glory in which he ascended, and the same glory in which he currently abides. Though our limited perception might find him absent, he is fully present, participating in every moment of our lives. By His Ascension, Christ has not deserted us but has made it possible for the Holy Spirit to enter all times and places. In this way it is possible for each of us to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into agents or instruments of Christ. We are enlivened, and our actions become animated in a new way by Holy Spirit as we serve the God we love. We have become Christs in the world. (Fr. Antony Kadavil)