It’s tempting to see the Ascension, the conclusion of Christ’s earthly ministry, as an ending.
But to think of it that way is to see it backwards.
What we celebrate today is really a beginning.
As we heard in Matthew’s gospel, moments before his Ascension, Jesus told his followers very simply: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” He urged them to baptize, to teach, to carry on the work that he has begun. But his first direction was so blunt, so direct, clear: “Go.” The world is waiting. Act on what I have taught you, Jesus said. Put it into practice.
But the account in Acts offers another challenge – to the disciples, and to us. After the disciples watched Jesus disappear into the clouds, two men appeared. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing there looking at the sky?”
In other words: what are you waiting for?
The apostles were not supposed to spend their time staring nostalgically at the stars, awaiting Christ’s return. There was work to do. There was a world waiting to be converted. They left the mountain, went into the city, and launched the greatest missionary undertaking in human history.
It seems to me that Christ’s first word at that moment was a simple command to us all: “Go.”
Go – and transform the world.
Go – and pick up those who have fallen.
Go – and heal those who are hurting.
Go – and love those who have been forgotten.
Or: as the dismissal puts it at the end of Mass: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your life.”
The disciples did that. So did so countless others. Think of some of the saints on our calendar. This week, we celebrated the feast of St. Isidore the farmer, who lived it while plowing the fields in Seville. Last week, there was St. Damien, who lived it among the lepers of Hawaii.
I think of modern heroes: people like Fr. Gregory Boyle, living it among the gangs of Los Angeles, offering them job training and opportunity and hope; and Jean Vanier, dwelling among the mentally disabled in Canada; and Dorothy Day, who saw Christ every day in the poor and downcast who showed up at the door of the Catholic Worker house on Manhattan’s lower East Side.
A lot of us this afternoon will leave this church after Mass and return to work. We have trains to catch and meetings to attend and bosses to deal with and deadlines to meet. But there is other work to be done, too — the great commission that all of us are charged with carrying out.
How will we do that? How will we heed Christ’s order to “go”? How will we make the ordinary job of living transcend – and ascend?
Put simply: How will we raise our lives to God?
2,000 years after Christ returned to his Father, and the disciples stood on a mountaintop staring into the clouds, so much of the world is still waiting to hear the good news – to hear Christ’s message of hope, and redemption, and resurrection, and to understand why all that matters.
So many are still waiting to hear, and really understand, what it means to be a disciple of Christ, and to love one another.
How will we make that known to those we meet today?
Dorothy Day once wrote: “Our faith is stronger than death, our philosophy is firmer than flesh, and the spread of the Kingdom of God upon the earth is more sublime and more compelling.”
So the message of this beautiful feast, I think, is very simple: do not stay too long on the mountain. Do not spend all your time gazing at the stars, living in the past or dreaming about the future.
Look, instead, at what lies before you. Get ready. And go.
What Dorothy Day called “The Kingdom of God upon the earth” needs to be built.
The Ascension was just the beginning. The rest is now up to us.
Image: “The Ascension” by James Tissot