A reflection on the readings of May 16, 2021 — the Feast of the Ascension
I would like to reflect on two aspects of the Feast of the Ascension. The first aspect is the reality of the Ascension of Jesus. As sure as the death and Resurrection of Jesus, Scripture recounts the Ascension of Jesus with total confidence and certainty (Acts 1:1-11). Today, like the disciples who were left behind in wonderment and awe, perhaps we too are left in amazement. And do we have questions? I am sure we do! Nevertheless, the Ascension of Jesus remains an essential article of our faith.
The second aspect is the ‘great commission.’ In the Markan version of the great commission, Jesus says to his disciples, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15). Today’s Scripture readings not only introduce us to this mission, but also suggest the spirit in which the Gospel must be proclaimed to the whole world and to every creature.
Let me draw three implications of the reality of the Ascension of Jesus and the task of the accompanying mission he entrusted to his disciples.
The Ascension of Jesus brings Jesus’ incarnate ministry on earth to completion. He came from God and now he returns to God. He lived a brief life on earth and much of his life did not go according to plan. But what a life! What a life! He changed the course of human history like no other human person ever did. We might say, but he was the Son of God. And we are right. But it was not by the divine exercise of power, glory, or majesty that he transformed history. Ultimately, even the greatest miracle he worked did not sway the ‘powers that be’ in his favor. Rather, it was Jesus’ fidelity to God, his fidelity to the work entrusted to him, his limitless capacity for love, his compassion and mercy, the forgiveness of even his enemies, and—most of all—how he lived out his own teachings that made him the most remarkable person who ever lived. The means by which he transformed human history are the same means we have at our disposal.
Jesus’ Ascension was the culmination of a life dedicated to God and human redemption. Jesus’ Ascension, then, becomes the hope of every person who models his or her life on the life of Jesus. We might not ascend to heaven in the same way Jesus did, but our destiny is the same. And what a life it will have been, if we go back to God after living a Christ-like life.
How do we ensure that when we go back to God that we can confidently stand before God? Before Jesus ascended to heaven, he entrusted his mission to his disciples, saying: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15). Paul describes this mission when he says to the Ephesians, “And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith” (Eph 4:11-13). Jesus’ mission is the great equalizer. Jesus personally entrusts each of us with his mission and ministry. No one can say that ministry is not entrusted to them. Ministry is not only for apostles, evangelists, and pastors. To use Paul’s language, he gave some as fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, young and old, teachers, engineers, doctors and nurses, members of law-enforcement, office clerks, grocery workers, farmers, social workers, and technicians all the work of ministry, for the building up the body of Christ until we all attain the unity of faith.
Today, on the feast of the Ascension of Jesus, let us make an intentional choice to sharpen our focus and put new energy into the ministry Jesus has entrusted to us—to build up the body of Christ. In the Eucharist, when you receive the Body of Christ, also accept the mission Christ is entrusting to you.
Jesus not only entrusted his mission to his disciples, but the New Testament community also understood how this ministry was to be carried out. Today’s second reading from the letter to the Ephesians gives us some direction. Fulfilling Christ’s mandate, Paul found himself in prison. Imprisoned, he writes a poignant letter to his fellow Christians, “I urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3). Humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve unity and peace—this is how ministry must be accomplished. I do not want to engage in a historical critique of the Holy Roman Empire, the medieval Church, or colonial Christianity that, while having the right intention, often attempted to carry out Christ’s mission in a style alien to the Gospel or the spirit of the early Church in the New Testament.
Pope Francis’ concept of ‘missionary discipleship’ is more closely aligned with Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians. During an Angelus address on July 15, 2018, Pope Francis laid out what it is to be ‘missionary disciples.’ First, he says, “The missionary disciple has a center, a point of reference, which is the person of Jesus.” Pope Francis’ is concerned about how quickly and easily missionary efforts can become centered around ideologies, individual personalities, or even large groups. Ministry can very quickly become alienated from the person of Jesus Christ.
Second, Pope Francis says that missionary discipleship is characterized by “a face, which consists in the poverty of means.” When Jesus sends out his disciples, he “wants them to be free and unhampered … certain only of the love of the One who sends them, strengthened only by his Word which they go to proclaim.” Pope Francis is speaking precisely about what Paul is saying in his exhortation—that we live in “humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace.”
Missionary discipleship is rich in Christ and poor in self-promotion, arrogance, and triumphalism. Christ cannot be attached to cultural expansion, ideological wars, nationalistic propaganda, racial supremacy, or a sense of religious superiority complex. To be a missionary is to be poor in self and rich in Christ and Christ alone.
As the disciples gathered at the mount of the Ascension, in the Eucharist at the altar we also gather around the presence of the Jesus. May wonder, amazement, ministry, and the enduring presence of God seize us. Filled with the richness of Christ’s presence, then, let us “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15).