From our human perspective, the Ascension might not seem very important. For many years, I remember thinking something like, “What’s the big deal? Jesus is leaving and going to be in Heaven. Would’ve been nice if he’d stuck around.” But the Church seems to think it is important, which usually means that it is. With 2000 years of experience in such matters, I’m willing to extend to her the benefit of the doubt. The Church says that today, God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord. Why is this such a big deal, and how does it impact my life?
St. Paul answers the first question for us. In his letter to the Ephesians, which is one of the few letters where he isn’t writing to correct some error within a community, St. Paul tells us that [I]n accord with the exercise of his great might, // which he worked in Christ, // [the Father raised] him from the dead // and seat[ed] him at his right hand in the heavens. This is a very straightforward reference to the Ascension. After his glorious victory over sin, evil, and death, Jesus Christ entered into Heaven and took his rightful place at seat of power at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Just to make sure we understand to breadth and depth of the power which the Father gives to the Son as a result of the great Sacrifice he made on behalf of humanity, St. Paul continues, that this seat is far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, // and every name that is named // not only in this age but also in the one to come. Not just Jews, but all the other peoples of the time would recognize in this statement that St. Paul is declaring Jesus Christ to rule over all the creatures of Heaven and Earth, i.e. angelic beings, human beings, animals, and inanimate objects alike, and for all eternity. When time ends, Jesus Christ remains on the throne of power, and St. Paul wants to make sure we know that.
St. Paul’s then tells us that he put all things beneath his 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. Did you catch that? St. Paul is telling us that God the Son is head over all things to the church, which is his body. This statement is important, because it tells us both why the Ascension is a big deal, and what it means for us. At the Ascension, Jesus Christ is given power over all things, but that is not all. The Church is grafted onto him: the same Church which we all entered at our baptism, the same Church we gather as today, right here, right now. The Church, mystically unified with Jesus Christ, is already in Heaven while still here on Earth. When we assemble as a Church, or as an ἐκκλησία (ekklésia) if you want to sound fancy and say things in Greek, to worship Jesus Christ, we worship him not just here on Earth, but also in Heaven. At the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Mass in particular, Heaven and Earth meet; eternity and time meet. We enter into the Heavenly Jerusalem, offer God our prayers and intentions in union with the offering of his beloved Son, and enter into a true Communion with one another all the Saints who have gone before us. The Ascension is when the Head of the Body of Christ, the Church, entered the Heavenly Jerusalem and brought us all with him.
As it turns out, younger me was very, very wrong. The Ascension is vitally important. Jesus knew this. After his Resurrection, he gave the final instruction to his apostles. He taught them about the kingdom of God. He instructed them that they would bear witness, starting in Jerusalem, moving further and further out as time went on. He promised them that the Holy Spirit would come upon them. His parting words, given in today’s Gospel, summarize the mission that Jesus gave the disciples—the disciples who would become the Church after the transformative events of the Ascension, the election of Matthias, and the Pentecost, but more on that next week. Jesus left us with these words: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. // Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, // baptizing them in the name of the Father, // and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, // teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. // And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20) This mission is given to all of us as members of the Church and Body of Jesus Christ. We are to make disciples—followers—of Jesus Christ. We are to bring them to baptism, so that they too can become part of the Kingdom of God and the Body of Christ. We are to teach them to observe Jesus’s commandments: to love God above all things, to love our neighbor, and to follow Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life. This mission seems daunting, but it is possible, because Jesus promises to always be with us and never to abandon us. Christ assumes this power at his Ascension, when he mounted his throne with shouts of joy and trumpet blasts.
As Christ ascended to Heaven and the apostles began to comprehend what had just happened, St. Luke tells us in Acts that they were staring at the sky when suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. // They said, “Men of Galilee, // why are you standing there looking at the sky? // This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven // will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) Aside from being a bit comical—let’s be honest, it’s a little funny—these messengers remind the apostles that now it is time to get to work. Our work right now is to worship God in this sacred place and at this sacred time. When we leave this assembly of believers and, following the example of the apostles, go out to the ends of the earth—or perhaps just our neighborhoods—we have our orders from Jesus Christ, to whom [a]ll power in heaven and on earth has been given. After we refresh ourselves at this Heavenly banquet, let us [g]o, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [Christ has] commanded [us]. And behold, [Christ is] with [us] always, until the end of the age.
May 24, 2020
Ascension of the Lord, Year A
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20