The Ascension of the Lord
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
His disciples abandon him in the garden. They betray him in fear. They question his resurrection, and his appearances after the resurrection. And yet, they find themselves again and again in his company. After his resurrection, our Lord stays with his students, instructing them, comforting them, promising them his constant company. And yet, they doubt. They obey, but they doubt. They worship, but they doubt. Jesus lays out for them their mission as apostles, their duties as men who will receive from him his Holy Spirit. And he gives them these final instructions just before he departs to sit at the Father’s right hand in heaven. Fully God and fully man, Jesus rises to the Father, body and soul, and leaves his friends to do what he has ordered. Even as they stand there, hearing his words, watching him rise, they doubt. Nothing he has done has moved them to fully believe, to accept, completely, with whole hearts who and what he is. They worship, but they doubt. And so, they stand there looking at the sky.
It's easy for us on this side of Pentecost’s history. We know that whatever hesitations, whatever reservations they might have had about Christ and his mission are set on fire and turned to ash with the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. But we are on this side of history, looking back. We read in Acts, Jesus says to the disciples, “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We read in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, “…[God] put all things beneath [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the Church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” This is not the witness of timid men, men who doubt yet worship. These are men who worship in spirit and in truth! We can easily understand how such faith and passion is possible, looking back as we do, standing here after the coming of the Holy Spirit. But then, way back then, as they stand on that mountain in Galilee, looking at the sky, they doubt.
And how does Jesus treat their doubt? Before his ascension he indulges their need for evidence, presenting his glorified body for their inspection. He chastises them, “Do you still not believe!?” He teaches them again where to find him in the prophecies of scripture. And they still doubt. Do we find this doubt so difficult to understand? Probably not. How often do we find ourselves questioning our faith, struggling with answers to questions we barely understand? How often, when evil seems to defeat us, do we question God’s promises? Question His love for us? More often than we would like admit? And yet, we worship. We pray. We come to praise His name and Him thanks. We do what they did and will likely do so again. How does Jesus handle our misgivings about his witness? He us, his Church, a monumental job to do.
It makes no sense at all for you to give a job to someone you do not trust. And it makes no sense for you to be given a job, which left undone, leaves you and the one who has given you the job defeated. We entrust important jobs to those we know will do what needs to be done. We are given jobs because we are trusted. And yet, there Jesus stands, on the mountain in Galilee, in front of his doubting disciples, saying to them and us, “Go…and make disciples of the nations, baptizing them…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Why does he trust us? Why, knowing our hearts to be brimming over with fear and hesitation, why does he give us this monumental task? Because he knows that the work he is giving us to do is his work and that because he is ascending to the Father, he will send them the Holy Spirit, thus fulfilling his final promise to us: “And, behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
The ascension of our Lord is the fulfillment of his promise to be with us always. By leaving us back then, he remains with us even now. By going to the Father, he sends his Spirit, who abides, always, forever with us. This solemnity is not about celebrating another miracle or recalling another sign of his heavenly power. Do we really need such a thing? This solemnity is about teaching us again that Christ’s work is our work and the job we have to do, we do not do alone. Even together, as the body the Church, we cannot witness, cannot teach, cannot preach, cannot do justice, cannot pray without his company. Without his company, we are nothing. With him, we are Christ, baptizing, teaching, observing his commandments. With him, we are his heirs among the holy ones; we are the very revelation of the Father to the world; we are this world’s hope, this world’s sacrament, this world’s salvation. Without him, we are nothing. With all of our doubts on full display – our flaws, our failures, our sad little sins – we are everything with him. And everything we are is Christ. How? He is with us always!