From the Pastor's Desk
I am with you always
Today we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord. Jesus takes leave of his apostles, but promises to be with them forever. Indeed he leaves the physical to be with them more intimately in Spirit. In a sense, his new form of presence supersedes the former. Before the Resurrection Jesus, choosing to be fully human, limited himself to a particular spot on the earth. But he returns to the Father so that he can be fully one with all his disciples until the end of the age.
And that presence is both a power and a mandate: “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. . . And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” And look what that presence of Christ, in his Spirit, does to the Eleven. They are transformed! They go from being this scared, doubtful, weak group of disciples to being a strong, united, body of evangelizers. They go from being afraid to publicly acknowledge even knowing Jesus to boldly proclaiming him to all as both Divine Lord and Redeemer. They are not only filled with faith, but with a fullness of hope and zeal, as well. And they proclaim Jesus with such power, faith and conviction, with such moving testimony, that many listeners cannot help but accept it and believe.
Sometimes we think that the Apostles were so blessed (or lucky?) to know Jesus in the flesh. But they came to a far greater place when they came to know Jesus by faith and were filled with his abiding presence, a blessing we too are offered. “Save us, Savior of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free.”
The Apostles didn’t have the faith of the Church to rely on and strengthen them. Indeed, they misunderstood: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” Matthew even says in the Gospel “When they (the Eleven) saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted” (emphasis mine). We have the great blessing of the testimony of the apostles and of being gifted with the faith that they proclaimed.
Jesus wanted to make clear to the apostles that he was going to be with them in a new way. Thus, the dramatic ascension. Jesus needed to leave so that his disciples could not defer to him on just about everything. With Jesus present the disciples were not likely to “step up.” Once Jesus was not physically present, the apostles would begin to preach the Gospel and proclaim Jesus as Lord, because Jesus had filled them with his abiding presence through the Holy Spirit given to them.
A few thoughts on how the Evangelists (Gospel writers) treat the Ascension of Jesus. Matthew makes no mention of it. His Gospel ends with an appearance of Jesus after the Resurrection; the account we just heard in today’s Gospel reading. John only mentions the Ascension in the comments of Jesus to Mary Magdalene on the morning of Resurrection. Mark has a very brief mention of the Ascension without giving any detailed or visual description of it. The image we typically have of the Ascension comes from the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles which was also written by him. And Luke gives us two versions of it. In his Gospel Luke tells us that Jesus ascended on the evening of the day of Resurrection, while in Acts he writes that Jesus ascended forty days after Easter.
Fr. Benoit in Ray Brown’s book makes a distinction between the two portrayals in Luke’s two volumes. He says that the Ascension of Jesus on Easter can be understood as the glorification of Jesus seated at the right hand of the Father. Thus he makes the Ascension an essential part of the Resurrection, while the ascending of Jesus’ body forty days later symbolized the end of the appearances of the Risen Christ. In this theological mode of thought, Jesus would already be seated at the right hand of the Father in his appearances to his disciples, with a glorified body able to enter locked rooms without use of a door. Indeed, as we hear today, Jesus proclaimed “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus was simultaneously with the Father and with the Church! Today’s Gospel is known as the Great Commission. Jesus commissioned his disciples (and ourselves) to carry on his mission of teaching, to teach what they had been taught, conscious that Jesus is still very much with them. Matthew began his Gospel announcing the birth of a son who will be called “Emmanuel” which means “God is with us.” He ends on the same note, that Jesus is with us always.
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