June 2, 2019 • Ascension of our Lord
Reading 1: Acts 1:1–11
Psalm: 46:2–3, 6–9
Reading 2: Ephesians 1:17–23
Gospel: Luke 24:46–53
Men of Galilee, why gaze in wonder at the heavens? This Jesus whom you saw ascending into heaven will return as you saw him go, Alleluia. (Entrance Antiphon, Acts 1:11)
The Ascension, in some ways, is a curious thing, and I have wondered about it for the past several days. It must have affected the “Men of Galilee” in the same way when it happened, for they were told to stop standing there, gazing at the heavens in astonishment. It is curious that neither Matthew nor John mentioned the Ascension at all in their Gospels, that Mark mentioned it only as a brief, one-sentence statement, and that it was Luke, of all people, who went into any detail whatsoever. Luke was never a witness of the event; more than likely, he had never met Jesus. Moreover, he was a Gentile and disciple of Paul from Antioch. What does the Ascension mean, and what does it have to tell us?
Have you ever heard of that little adage, “They are so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly use?” I remember that being quoted a lot in a particular church that I attended when I was a Protestant. It meant that we can’t be thinking about heaven so much that we are not doing Christ’s work on earth, right now. We cannot eternally debate heavenly matters, all the while ignoring the needs of those around us. We cannot stand gazing up at the heavens, as the angels said, because Jesus will be coming back, and he will most certainly ask those who belong to him how they spent their time on earth. Ours is an active faith, and our examples are the Apostles and their disciples, who travelled the length and breadth of the known world evangelizing, baptizing, healing, and teaching all who would listen and respond to the Gospel.
In my studies this week, I came across a very good article about the Ascension written by Mark Shea. In fact, I wouldn’t mind doing a copy-paste right now and letting you just read it in its entirety, but for brevity’s sake, I will point out the more salient points and then direct you to the article itself. It is worth the read!
Mark goes into the reasons for the Ascension mentioned in other than the main Scripture citings found in Luke’s writings. First, we see Jesus himself referring to the Ascension in a prophetical manner in the Gospel of John:
“In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:2–3)
I have always found great comfort in this verse. Jesus is going to prepare a place for us, a home for us with God. There is so much packed into this promise! It tells me that this place where I am is not home. This is only a temporary residence, an exile, as Catholics so rightly call it. Don’t get too comfortable here. Don’t get settled here. Be ready to go at any moment! I will return! So Christ told us even while living here that He would be leaving us to go to Heaven, because he had work there to do.
Mark quotes another verse, this time from the book of Hebrews:
Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord… For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. (Hebrews 8:1–2; 9:24)
Here we see that Christ is still ministering as High Priest in the sanctuary in heaven, the true sanctuary — and wonder of wonders, he appears in the presence of God on our behalf! He goes to mediate for us before God the Father. He came to earth to “stand in the breach” and offer himself as the final Sacrifice. And now in heaven, he does the same thing, bringing us before God and pleading on our behalf.
Finally, Mark reminds us that Jesus himself tells us why He must leave us:
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)
St Paul explains this further in his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 4:
But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.…
When you are Catholic, you can watch as this gift of the Holy Spirit is given in Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination through the priest or bishop. You can watch the Holy Spirit being breathed on the Oil of Chrism during the Chrism Mass by the Bishop, who is an Apostle just as the original Apostles were. When Christ ascended, we had to release him and let him go, so that the Spirit could come to one and all. Jesus was naturally limited by his humanity to one place and time, but the Holy Spirit has no such limitations and is free to come to all who receive him throughout all time, until Christ comes again. We are witnesses of his coming again and again as we see the Sacraments conferred on those in our parishes.
This is a tremendous thing when you think about it. The lineage of the Apostles remains unbroken through the Holy Spirit and the laying on of hands, and these men serve in our day as bishops and priests, just as they served at the beginning of the Church. His Ascension ensured that, and in ensuring it, the Ascension has also ensured the stability and the witness of the Church, His Body, for the last 2000 years.
Christ came down from heaven alone so that he could return to heaven with as many “captives” as possible in his wake, reconciling us to God through His death on the Cross and sanctifying us through the giving of the Holy Spirit. He asks us to keep our eyes on the promise of heaven while we also diligently work to bring his message to those who remain hostages here on earth. Why do we stand here gazing upwards when we could be going out into the darkness and leading people to the light before he comes again?
You will find Mark Shea’s article in its entirety at http://bit.ly/2Ia1K62 .