May 12, 2018

The Lord's Ascension: From Glory to Mission

"They went forth and preached everywhere . . . while the Lord worked with them."

Mark 16: 15 - 20

I do love good movies and plays.  In order for all to come together, to convey the moral of the story, to be sure the key players are performing as scripted and with enough convincing emotion, and to make the right impact on the audience, it’s what happens on the other side of the camera or behind the scenes on stage that really makes all the difference to success.  In other words, you need a good director.  The one who watches the action, knows in their mind what the point of the story is and moves actors and scenes around to make the most lasting impact. 

But, as skilled as actors are to embrace the character they portray and as thrilling as our scenes may be, it’s all pretend.  Remember how realistic an effort was made with the famed television series “Downton Abbey” and you have a very good example of something so convincing as to seem real.  The story line and the eventual effect of the movie or play is the final point.

This weekend, in a large part of the Catholic world, we celebrate a turning point in the Easter season and the earthly ministry of Jesus: the Feast of the Lord’s Ascension is recalled.  The scene is familiar to us and would certainly make a stunning effect:  The Lord Jesus suddenly lifts off the ground, disappears into the clouds above in a ray of sunlight, angels appear as the Apostles stand staring into the sky above wondering where he went. The risen Lord leaves the company of his Apostles after the glory of the resurrection and commissions them to begin the mission of the Church. He goes from glory to mission.

Yet, what do we often imagine?  Our first reading from Acts relates the event: “When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight . .  .”  Then the angel appeared and asked them: “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” Our Gospel passage from Mark, states the same: “So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke with them, was taken up into heaven . . .”Isn’t this how we often imagine this moment to be.  Jesus was literally lifted off the ground in his risen body into the sky above?

When Jesus gathered with his disciples for his final communication, he urged them: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature . . .” A tall order indeed!  So our Lord proclaims and passes on his mission to those who would follow and represent him.  “Go” everywhere and tell all humanity what God has done in and through Jesus of Nazareth, his only Son that all are saved and mercy and forgiveness is offered to everyone, everywhere who believe in his name. But then, he leaves them as he disappeared into the clouds above to never be seen again.  He went “to heaven” wherever that is and we remain on earth – left behind.  So heaven and earth are separated, far far away from each other, and Jesus carries on where he went while we simply plod along trying to do the best we can. 

Despite this literal image, as Bishop Robert Barron notes, the Bible implies otherwise.  Our passage from Mark’s gospel ends:  But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them.”   The implication is clear from this.  Our reading from Acts urges the disciples to return to Jerusalem, pray and wait for, “. . . power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” and then, “. . . you will be my witnesses.”

The implication is that Jesus has not left this earth. Though the Lord Jesus is not visible in his risen body, he remains very much in control and involved from his heavenly place as he works in and through his Church. While we aren’t puppets whose strings are pulled willy-nilly by the divine puppeteer, Christ lives in his Church and directs mysteriously through the constant presence of his Spirit. This director enters the action as he himself becomes the message.  His real Eucharistic presence is the ultimate living encounter with us that convinces us he is anything but passive and uncaring. It embodies his mission.

At the core of that Christian mission is the command of love. He gave it to his disciples at the Last Supper foot washing, he lived it out, he offered it under bread and wine, and he remains involved with his disciple witnesses; with each of us.  To embrace and live fully the truth that we are loved by a merciful God moves us to extend that same fellowship Charity (Agape) for others.  Through that mission of Divine love God’s kingdom is established and his will is done here on earth.  We await its fulfillment in the salvation of Heaven. 

So, one example I ran across was this:  “God loves you, Johnny, so be good.”  It’s not, “Be good, Johnny, so God can love you.”  I found that inspiring, frankly. We neither can earn God’s love nor do we deserve it.  God loves us, so we do good because we realize this great truth.  Last week’s readings reminded us: “Not that we have loved God but that he has loved us.” (1 Jn 4: 9-10). What could be more simple and transforming to know this truth?  As Christ reigns in glory we carry on his mission.

As we prepare for Pentecost next Sunday, we see that moment when Jesus returns in the Holy Spirit and there remains present and active to us:  in his Word, in the Sacraments, in the lives of believers everywhere and within the structure of his Church.  This being so, a search for Christ can only be fulfilled within the body of the Church; you cannot separate Jesus from his Body, his Church.

So, while our imagination may want to visualize what that event was like for the disciples all the more we must recognize that we are not orphans, abandoned or left completely to our own unruly nature.  God is present among us in the here and the now.  Christ is very much in control as his Spirit breaths life constantly upon his Church guarding and directing it. But we must love as we are loved.  Didn’t we see this concretely in the lives of great saints like St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Vincent de Paul and many others of selfless charity. 

See and imitate the same.  

May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, 
the Father of glory, 
give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation
resulting in knowledge of him . . . 

(Second Reading: Eph 1: 17 - 23)