John 17: 1-11a
Departure, presence and return are the key themes of the scriptures on the Feast of the Ascension. These points are woven around a basic recounting of the event of Jesus’ ascension itself, the moment when he took leave of his disciples physically after his resurrection and appearances to them, not to return “until the end of the age” and the final judgment.
Both the Acts of the Apostles and the gospels of Mark and Luke narrate the ascension of Jesus from the midst of his followers. Mark reports that Jesus ascended “up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God” presumably from Jerusalem, where he had appeared to his disciples (Mark 16:14, 19). Luke says that Jesus ascended from Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem, on the evening of the first Easter Sunday (Luke 24:13-51); in the Acts of the Apostles he states that Jesus ascended from the Mount of Olives, where Bethany is found, but he adds that the ascension took place forty days after his resurrection (Acts 1:1-12).
As Catholics the differences in these accounts are not a matter to make us stumble but rather an understandable example of the human element in the inspired revelation that comes to us through the scriptures. In any case, the ascension marks the definitive end of the visible presence of Jesus to his newly formed Church. It is thus a moment of sadness for them yet also a moment of great joy and exaltation as they witness his glory and his union with the Father.
Immediately before his departure Jesus makes two important promises to his followers to sustain them—and us—while he is gone: first he declares that he will send the Holy Spirit to them, which will be received through baptism; and then he assures the disciples that he will remain with them always, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).
Regarding the first promise, the apostles and the other disciples present would indeed be baptized in a unique manner, with tongues of fire coming to rest over them in a dramatic public outpouring of the Holy Spirit; the Church will celebrate this event next Sunday on the Feast of Pentecost. While this must have been a truly awesome scene, it is vital for all present day Christians to remember that we too receive the very same outpouring of the Holy Spirit: we too are “baptized in the Holy Spirit”, though in the waters of the baptismal font rather than with tongues of fire.
The identity of our baptism and sharing in the Holy Spirit with that of the original Jerusalem community is underlined by the fact that we, like they, are sent forth “to be witnesses to Jesus to the ends of the earth” (see Acts 1:8) and “to make disciples of all the nations” (Matt 28:19), handing on to them the gift of baptism. Through his followers Jesus’ mission and ministry thus continues after his ascent into heaven; in a very real way Christian believers make the Lord’s presence felt even though he is now physically departed.
This brings us to the second promise which Jesus made before his ascension: that he would remain with us always. The presence within us of the Holy Spirit, given in the waters of baptism, is itself a fulfillment of this second promise since wherever Jesus’ Spirit is present he himself is present and active.
Buoyed up by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in this time of the new evangelization all Christians are called to respond to Jesus’ command to: “go forth and make disciples of all the nations” so that on his return in glory he will welcome the fullness of humanity into his kingdom and bring all of us to share in his eternal glory.
Fr. Edward Mazich, O.S.B.