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Reflections for the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord. He says that the ascended Jesus is still with us because of His promise, ' I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.'

Acts 1:1-11;  Eph 1:17-23;  Lk 24:46-53

Introduction: Today’s readings describe the Ascension of the Lord Jesus his Heavenly glory after promising to send the Apostles the Holy Spirit as the source of Heavenly power and commanding them to bear witness to Him through their lives and preaching throughout the world.  But 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.

Homily starter anecdote: The Unfinished Painting: Leonardo da Vinci had started to work on a large canvas in his studio.  For a while he worked at it – choosing the subject, planning the perspective, sketching the outline, applying the colors, with his own inimitable genius.  Then suddenly he stopped working on it.  Summoning one of his talented students, the master invited him to complete the work.  The horrified student protested that he was both unworthy and unable to complete the great painting which his master had begun.  But da Vinci silenced him.  "Will not what I have done inspire you to do your best?"  Jesus our Master began to spread the Good News two thousand years ago by what he said and did, and supremely by what he suffered.  Jesus illustrated his message and left us to finish the picture.  Will Jesus’ life not inspire us to finish the picture? This is the message of the Ascension ( )

The Scripture lessons, summarized:  The first reading, taken from the Acts of the Apostles, describes the scene of Jesus’ Ascension, the promise of the Holy Spirit, the instruction to the apostles to wait at Jerusalem for the power from above, and the missionary command to the apostles to bear witness to him. Today's Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 47),"God mounts His throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord," celebrates God's universal Kingship. This 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, suggesting that by the Ascension, the risen Jesus "mounts his throne" in glory.  In the second reading, Paul teaches us that God revealed His might in the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ and in exalting him over all angelic forces.  Jesus remains accessible to us now in the life-giving Holy Spirit, assuring us that one day we, too, will be ascending to Heavenly glory, provided that, with His grace, we live out our Faith in Him through the mission of loving service He entrusts to us. Today’s Gospel tells us that, with his return to the Father, Jesus completes his mission on earth.  But just before his Ascension, Jesus entrusted to the disciples the mission of preaching the Good News and evangelizing the whole world by bearing witness to him through their lives. It is in the Ascension that we see Jesus entering fully into the life and glory of God.  In the descriptions of Christ after his Resurrection, we are given a hint of what life will be like in Heaven.   The prospect of sharing that glory should be the driving force of our lives.

The first reading (Acts 1: 1-11) explained: The event of Jesus’ Ascension, recorded in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, serves as today’s first reading. Before ascending to the Father, Jesus instructed the apostles to “remain in Jerusalem and wait for the baptism by the Holy Spirit” so that they might become Jesus’ “witnesses to the ends of the earth” by the power of the Holy Spirit. Then “a cloud took Jesus from the sight” of the disciples, and two heavenly messengers in white garments gave them the assurance of Jesus’ coming return to earth in glory. “Luke will note that [the disciples] number about 120. This numeric note is more than mere census; the multiple of twelve underscores Luke's conviction that this Jerusalem community of “Jews for Jesus” begins to fulfill the ancient expectation that “The Age to Come” would entail the restoration of Israel. The list of eleven disciples is conspicuous for the absence of Judas. The first agenda item for this post-Ascension community will be the restoration of the core group to the number twelve, showing the apostolic concern for restoring the number to the very meaning of Jesus’ original choice of a symbolic Twelve.” (Fr. Dennis Ham).

The second reading (Eph 1: 17-23) explained: [alternate Hebrews 9: 24-28; 10: 19-23]: The first part of our passage prays for the Church’s growth in wisdom and knowledge and looks to the risen and ascended Christ for the power to foster this growth. The hymn then goes on to elaborate on the exaltation and kingship of Christ. (Fr. Reginald Fuller). St. Paul got a glimpse of this post-Ascension glory on the road to Damascus. (CCC #659. In Ephesians, 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."  Our great hope is that one day we too will be ascending to Heavenly glory, provided that, with His grace, we live out our Faith in Him through the mission of loving service He entrusts to us. 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 witnessing through the Holy Spirit Whom the risen Jesus, after His Ascension, asked the Father to send on the Church. 

Gospel exegesis (Note: This Sunday’s Gospel is made up of the last six verses of Mark’s Gospel, which are not found in the earliest and best ancient manuscripts of Mark. Many Biblical scholars today believe that they may have derived from a second-century source which included accounts of post-Resurrection appearances. Nevertheless, they are considered canonical and inspired by the constant tradition of the Church, and by the Church’s teaching authority. Gerard S. Sloyan, Preaching from the Lectionary: An Exegetical Commentary, p. 329).

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 his “Mission Accomplished."  Ascension is the grand finale of all Jesus’ words and works done for us and for our salvation.  It is a culmination, but not the conclusion.  As Jesus is now with God in glory, so Jesus is with us now in Spirit: "Lo, I am with you always." The feast of the Ascension celebrates one aspect of the Resurrection, namely Jesus’ exaltation.  Jesus did not wait 40 days to be glorified at God’s right hand. That had already happened at his Resurrection.  The focus of this feast is the Heavenly reign of Christ.  The Lord is now "seated at the right hand of the Father" as we profess in the Nicene Creed, meaning He alone is in control of the continuing plan of salvation through the Holy Spirit, unrestricted by time, space or culture.  Thus, in the Paschal Mystery, Jesus' passion, death, Resurrection, Ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit form one unbroken reality which is to be understood by Faith. The Ascension means that Jesus, His salvific suffering for our Salvation completed, is with his Father in glory. Being seated at the right hand of the Father is the fulfillment of “the prophet Daniel’s vision concerning the Son of Man: ‘To him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed’” (CCC #664).

B) The Ascension account and its significance: 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 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. Christ’s Ascension or going up to heaven completes his Incarnation or coming down to earth. Christ has opened the way to heaven for us. (CCC #661). “Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, precedes us into the Father’s glorious kingdom so that we, the members of his Body, may live in the hope of one day being with him forever” (CCC #666). “Jesus Christ, having entered the sanctuary of heaven once and for all, intercedes constantly for us as the mediator who assures us of the permanent outpouring of the Holy Spirit” (CCC #667).

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” (Matthew 28:19).  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 the disciples a mission of bearing witness toh by preaching and living the Good News.  They are to tell and re-tell the story of Jesus' life, suffering, death and Resurrection.  (b) He assured them of the Divine assistance of the Holy Spirit in the carrying out of this mission. (c) He instructed them to baptize the believers: “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.” (Mt 16: 19-20).  “In the earliest community and for some time, Baptism was administered in the name of Jesus. It is only in this passage of Matthew and in the Didache, a Christian writing probably dating back to the end of the first century, that we hear of the threefold formula.” (Fr. Reginald Fuller).

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 and the resurrected 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 that ascended to the Father.  It was the Risen living Body of Jesus: a Body that the disciples had touched, a Body in which He Himself  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, and Who, ascended.  This is what, now and forever, is a living, participating part of God. That is what 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.

Life messages: 1) We need to be proclaimers and evangelizers: In today's Gospel, Jesus gives this 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.”

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."

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, Jesus is present in his words., and we must make these words real in our lives as well as 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.   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 the Church 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 Jesus arose from the tomb, the same glory to which Jesus ascended, and the same glory in which Jesus currently abides. Though our limited perception might find him absent, Jesus 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 Spirit into agents or instruments of Christ. We become enlivened, and our actions become animated in a new way by the Spirit of the God we love and serve. We have become other Christs in the world. (Fr. Antony Kadavil)

30 May 2019, 11:28