Acts 1: 1-11; Eph 1: 17-23; Matt 28: 16-20
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 of 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 to 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 his Holy Spirit as the source of heavenly power for his disciples and after 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 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 remain in Jerusalem and wait for the baptism by the Holy Spirit so that they may become his “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’ return in glory.
Today's psalm, “God is king of all the earth,” celebrates God's universal kingship. It 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.
The second reading (Eph 1: 17-23 & 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." Our great hope is that one day we too will be ascending to heavenly glory provided we do 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 witnessing through the Spirit of the risen and ascended Jesus 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.
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, by his return to his Father with “Mission Accomplished." 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. As he is now with God in glory, he is now with us in 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 already happened at his resurrection. The focus of this feast is the heavenly reign of Christ, not the scientific details of the ascension itself. The Ascension of Jesus does not mean that he literally began to float up into space. Other incidents of the Bible, such as the ascension of Elijah suggested to Luke the spatial imagery he used to tell of our Lord’s departure. The Lord would be 'seated at God’s right hand', meaning He alone would be in control of the continuing plan of salvation through the Spirit, unrestricted by time, space or culture. Thus the Paschal Mystery of Jesus' passion, death, resurrection, ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit forms one unbroken reality which is to be understood by faith. Ascension simply means that Jesus is with his Father in glory.
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 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” (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 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. (b) He assured them of the divine assistance of his Holy Spirit in the carrying out of this mission.
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 resurrected body of Jesus: a body that the disciples had touched, a body that had eaten and drunk with them, 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.
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.”
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, he 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, 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. 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 his 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 with his Spirit. Our actions become animated in a new way by the Spirit of the God we love and serve. We have become Christs in the world.
There is the funny story of the raw army recruit standing at attention on the drill field. The drill instructor yells, "Forward, march!" And the entire ranks begin to move, all except this one raw recruit. He's still standing there at attention. So the drill instructor strolls over to him and yells in his right ear, "Is this thing working?" "Sir, yes, sir!" The recruit yells. Then the drill instructor walks around to the other ear and yells, "Is this thing working?" "Sir, yes, sir!" The soldier says. "Then why didn't you march when I gave the order?" "Sir, I didn't hear you call my name." Some of us are like that soldier standing around waiting for God to call our names. But the great commission given by Jesus on the day of his Ascension is a blanket order. It has everyone's name on it. And you can be sure that the man in charge says, "Go! Make disciples! Teach!” It is your mission and my mission.
(Homilies of Fr. Anthony Kadavil)