Six weeks ago we celebrated the amazing event of Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead. Indeed, we have continued celebrating his triumph over sin and death, and his rising to new life, throughout the weeks of the Easter Season. Our first reading today gives us a good summary of what we have pondered during these weeks: “He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the Kingdom of God.”
Today we celebrate Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven. In order to enter well into this feast, we can put ourselves in the place of his disciples. They were completely devastated by Jesus’ crucifixion and death on Good Friday, terrified of what would happen next, and almost in despair. On Easter Sunday, they were suddenly confronted with the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection. They were overjoyed and found the news so amazing as to be almost beyond belief. Over the next forty days Jesus continued to appear to them in various places, and they must have become somewhat accustomed to the idea that he would continue to be with them now in this new way.
But after forty days, Jesus ascends into Heaven. He is no longer visibly with them. They might well feel sadness and fear again at losing him once more. What will they do now without him? How can they go on? Jesus gives them the answer just before he ascends: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” In other words, Jesus has not abandoned us. He has withdrawn his visible presence so that he can be with us in a more profound and intimate way in his Holy Spirit. He assures us of his continued presence with us in the Gospel Acclamation: “I am with you always, until the end of the world.”
The Spirit empowers the disciples to go forth and continue Jesus’ mission. Jesus was sent by the Father into the world to bring the Good News to all people and usher in the Kingdom of God. During his earthly ministry, he was able to touch and teach relatively few people. But his message and his saving sacrifice are meant to reach everyone, in every place and every age. He wants us, his followers, to participate with him in carrying out that mission. In one of the Resurrection appearances Jesus tells the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (Jn 20:21). And in our Gospel for today he says, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.”
The Psalm makes clear that our response to Jesus’ Ascension is not fear or sadness; it is joy. Today we are exhorted to “shout to God with cries of gladness” and to “sing hymns of praise.” Jesus takes his place in Heaven, mounting his throne at the right hand of his Father “amid shouts of joy.” We rejoice because Jesus, who reigns in Heaven, is also with us so intimately, so personally, in a way which overcomes limitations of time and space. Each of us, no matter when we were born or where we live, is able to have communion with the Lord Jesus.
In the Spiritual Reflection for this week, Pope Francis says, “the Ascension exhorts us to lift our gaze toward Heaven, in order to return it immediately to the earth, to implement the tasks that the Risen Lord entrusts to us.” We are to “look toward Heaven,” that is, to keep our hearts and minds fixed on our Risen Lord, taking on his mind and heart, and looking forward to being with him in glory. At the same time, we focus on the work still to be done here on earth. The reading from Ephesians 1 is a prayer that we be given a gift of the Spirit to know the Lord, and to know the great hope and glory which belong to our call; this is a profound “look toward Heaven.” Meanwhile, the reading from Ephesians 4 speaks of the unity which we are to maintain with one another in the “bond of peace,” as we share, even while still here on earth, “one body and one Spirit, … one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all.”
The joy of this day flows from our focus on the Lord to carrying out his mission to our brothers and sisters. This is what Pope Francis means by looking to Heaven and then back to earth. We rejoice in the Spirit of our Risen Lord present with us as we go forth to minister to him in the people around us.
Exaggerated focus on ourselves robs us of joy. When our eyes are neither on the Lord nor on others, but only on our own wants and desires, our own comforts, our own glory and honor, there is no room for joy in the Lord. Leaving selfish concerns behind, today we are called to rejoice in the loving presence of our Lord Jesus with us, and to generously give ourselves in love and service to others in continuation of his mission.
Do the words of Jesus “I am with you always, until the end of time” give me hope? Am I willing to leave my desires, comfort and glory behind to possess the joy of the Lord? Am I willing to touch and reach out to others to proclaim the Gospel to every creature?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 17, no. 4. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.