ASCENSION OF OUR LORD: Acts 1:1-11; Eph 1:17-23; Mt 28:16-20)
Many years ago there lived a very poor family in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina by the name of Carpenter. The oldest boy went to the city to get an education. His father arranged for him to board with some family friends, who generously financed his studies when he decided to become a doctor. He graduated with honors, but declined all job offers to practice medicine in the city. He said he was going back to the mountains, where there were many sick people and few doctors.
For many years he ministered to the sick. Some paid, most couldn't. He gave his very best and helped everyone he could. In his old age he was in broken health himself and almost penniless. Two small rooms above the town grocery store were his home and office. At the foot of the creaky stairs leading up to his office was a sign with these words: "Dr. Carpenter is upstairs." One morning someone climbed those stairs to find the devoted doctor dead. The entire community was plunged in grief. They wanted to erect some kind of monument to him. But they decided to simply write these words on a large tombstone: "Dr. Carpenter is upstairs."
Jesus is the Divine Doctor of our souls. He is "upstairs" in Heaven, where he ascended after his Resurrection. But he is still alive and eager to help us through the Sacraments, the Bible, and the Church. Every time we turn to him in prayer, we climb the stairs to his office. Because he is upstairs, Dr. Jesus is always in.
The Ascension and Pentecost, taken together, mark the beginning of the Church. Jesus’ Ascension is both an ending and a beginning. The physical appearances of Jesus are at an end. Now begins the work of the disciples to teach what they have learned and to share what they have witnessed. Although risen and ascended, Jesus is still with us through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Bible, in the Sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, and in the praying community.
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 Jesus 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 had already happened at his Resurrection. Like the 40 days after Easter during which He appeared to many in Israel, this public Ascension in to Heaven was given to us for our sakes. The 40 days allowed many to experience personally his Resurrection and his being alive in a glorified body as fact to be counted upon, reality, and the fulfillment of prophecy. The focus of this feast is the Heavenly reign of Christ, and the Lord’s being” seated at God’s right hand,” meaning He alone will be in control of the continuing plan of salvation through the Holy Spirit, unrestricted by time, space or culture. It is there, at the “right hand of God,” that he continues to make intercession for all of us with the Father.
Before ascending 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.”
The critical moment in a relay race is the passing of the baton from one runner to another. More relays are won or lost at that moment than at any other. The feast of the Ascension might be compared to the passing of the baton in a relay race. On this day over 2,000 years ago, Jesus passed the baton of responsibility for the Kingdom of God to his followers. Jesus commissioned them to complete the work he had begun. How do you and I, in the 20th century, carry out Jesus’ commission to be his witnesses to the world and his teachers to the nations? There are as many ways to do this as there are Christians. We can do what Albert Schweitzer did. At the age of 30 he abandoned his music career in Europe to study medicine and became a missionary doctor in Africa. We can do what the baseball coach of Spring Hill College, Alabama, did a few years back. At the age of 35 he resigned his position and began his studies for the priesthood. We can do what a Poor Clare cloistered nun, Mother Angelica, did. In her 50s she began a Catholic religious television channel, EWTN.
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.”