And it's a call to share with others our own experience of the Risen Christ.
While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, 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 1:10-11
My growing appreciation for the feast of the Ascension reminds me of a scene in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead, in which Reverend John Ames looks back on a life of pastoral service, love, loss, faith, and hope, and tells his young son:
Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time. For example, whenever I take a child into my arms to be baptized, I am, so to speak, comprehended in the experience more fully, having seen more of life, knowing better what it means to affirm the sacredness of the human creature. I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect.
The New Testament is the story of the expanding vision of the early Church. Having lived alongside Jesus, his followers — including Mary and the Apostles — had to discern what his life, death, resurrection, and return to the Father revealed about who Jesus was and what God was asking of each of them. But, the New Testament also shows us that this process of discovery and discernment didn’t take place in a vacuum—it was within the lived experience of the Church that answers to these fundamental questions began to take shape.
An understanding of Jesus’ return to the Father—of his ascension into Heaven—was one of those visions “that come to us only in memory, in retrospect,” just like the experience of Jesus’ resurrection could only be understood after the disciples lived their Easter faith through years of praying, preaching, communion, fidelity, and suffering.
The Solemnity of the Ascension is a celebration of two promises.
First, Jesus has promised that he will send us the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to guide and sustain the growth of the Church. Beyond this, the Ascension also contains a promise about what is now made possible for us in Christ:
May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe, in accord with the exercise of his great might (Ephesians 1:18-19).
The challenge for us is to live in this promise.
Of course, this feast also celebrates the truth that the Risen Christ took his place in glory, “far above all heavens, that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). But, when we reflect on the scriptural accounts of the Ascension, we also see how the great Easter themes are also part of this celebration.
This feast is an invitation for us to reflect on how we are—or are not—continuing this work today, in our communities, parishes, and families. And yet, we also know how easy it is for us to become weighed down by our day-to-day responsibilities and the legion of distractions and diversions that fill our lives.
But the Solemnity of the Ascension reminds us that we are called to greater things: nothing less than sharing with others our own experience of the Risen Christ. This is what the Apostles were about and this is what are called to, as well.
The Ascension of Jesus ultimately prepared the hearts of the Apostles to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. It was grace present in those gifts which inspired their preaching and teaching and which gave life to the Church, even in times of persecution and division.
As Pope St. John Paul II has reflected, “the Holy Spirit makes them witnesses and prophets. It fills them with a serene courage which impels them to pass on to others their experience of Jesus and the hope which motivates them” (Redemptoris Missio, 24). This same Spirit is offered to us in Baptism and Confirmation, missioning us to also be Christ’s witnesses and prophets.
How is God inviting you to share your faith with others? When have you received the gift of someone else’s faith and hope? How did that gift change you?As we look towards Pentecost and the end of the Easter Season, how does this feast invite you to reflect on your own commitment to live as a disciple of Jesus?
Words of Wisdom: “‘Go,’ Jesus tells us, even today. In Baptism he conferred upon each of us the power to proclaim. Thus, going out into the world with the Lord is part of the Christian identity. It is not only for priests, nuns or the consecrated. It is for all Christians. It is our identity; going into the World with the Lord is our identity. Christians are not stationary, but on a journey: with the Lord towards others.” —Pope Francis in Exsultate et Gaudete, no. 135