ASCENSION (ACTS 1: 1-11; EPH 1: 17-23; MAT 28: 16-20)
Today is the feast of Ascension. Jesus ascended to heaven, body and soul, assuring us that heaven is a real place, not just a nice idea, a myth, or wishful thinking.
One of Aesop's Fables shows just how new this Christian revelation really was. Aesop was a Greek slave who lived before the time of Christ. He was renowned for his natural wisdom, which was recorded in his famous fables, or short stories with deep lessons. One day he was ordered by his master to go to the public baths and get things ready (in ancient times public baths were like country clubs). On his way, he was stopped by one of the official judges of the city. The judge asked him where he was going. Aesop, thinking that it was none of the judge's business, answered, "I don't know." The judge was offended by this reply, which he considered disrespectful, and marched him off to prison for punishment (disrespectful slaves could be punished without a trial). When they arrived at the prison, Aesop turned to his captor and said, "Judge, when I told you, 'I don't know where I am going,' I was speaking the truth. Little did I think that I was on my way to prison! You see, it is true indeed that we never really know just where we are going." Faced with this explanation, the judge had no choice but to let Aesop go free.
This ironic story illustrates the absolute uncertainty of pre-Christian humanity about what happens after death – they just didn't know. Neither science, nor philosophy, nor pagan religion could pull back the curtain on the afterlife. Only Jesus Christ has shined a light on this mystery, by his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
The Ascension is the establishment of his Kingship and his Kingdom on absolutely unshakable ground. Earthly kings and emperors always remain vulnerable; if their enemies don't usurp them, death surely will. But Christ's reign will never come to an end. He is no longer vulnerable. Because he has ascended into heaven, his Kingdom is firm; his Church will never be destroyed. As St Paul put it in the Second Reading, God made Christ the everlasting King, "raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named".
Ascension is a crucial part of Christ's mission and message. It is the culminating moment, the finale, the final whistle, the moment in which his victory will be enshrined in heaven for ever. Jesus ascends into heaven as the living sacrifice that will continue to be the bridge between God and humanity until the end of time. His words at this moment, therefore, are critical. And what does he say? Two things. First, he sums up the message of salvation.
He reminds his Apostles that he had come to earth in order to preach salvation, and then to make it into a reality by his suffering, death, and resurrection. Only because of Christ's preaching and passion is it possible for mankind to experience the salvation from sin and ignorance that they desire, the peace of soul that they yearn for.
Second, he gives his followers a job. He calls upon them to be witness of these things. They will not be able to carry out their witness all by themselves, they will need the Holy Spirit, and so he promises that at Pentecost they will be "clothed with power from on high." But then they are to go to "all the nations" as Christ's witnesses. So, in the Ascension of our Lord, we come face to face with the core of the entire Gospel: Christ's saving message being transmitted to all people through the witness of the Church.
Jesus tells us right before he ascends into heaven: "that repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name." It is a mandate to every Christian who believes in him.
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.
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. St.Francis says proclaim gospel at all times, use words when necessary. Jesus may have ascended, but his ties with us did not end. He continues to rely on us to share his concern, love, and mercy with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. May we sustain his mission with utmost generosity and enthusiasm. Next Sunday is the feast of Pentecost. Let us ask the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help us bear witness to Jesus by our transparent Christian lives.