The Ascension: Christ is enthroned to continue his redemptive mission

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Ascension, Year C: May 16, 2010
Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3, 6-9; Eph 1:17-23; Luke 24:46-53

Anyone who has ever seen the movie “Forrest Gump” probably remembers that extended sequence in the movie when the title character, Forrest, spends more than 3 years running across the entire country—more than once, back and forth, coast to coast. He grows a beard and long hair, underneath his cap. And he also gets a following—a group of other people who are running with him, behind him, who believe—in spite of the fact that he doesn’t say anything about it—that he has the answer in a confused world. So he keeps running, and they keep following him, day after day, mile after mile. And then one day he comes to a stop, on a highway somewhere in the Southwest, and he turns around. And one of those followers says, “Quiet! He’s gonna say something!” And what he says is: “I’m pretty tired. Think I’ll go home now.”

Is that what the Ascension is all about? “I’m pretty tired. Think I’ll go home now”? With the disciples left saying, like that crowd of people following Forrest: “Now what are we supposed to do?” I ask this question because I think that there many who believe in Christ today and follow him who may think that the Ascension is rather like that: that Jesus just leaves, and now he’s gone; and now what are we supposed to do?

Well, it is true that in the accounts of the Ascension, the disciples do seem a little confused. This is much as they appear in the Gospels. In the first reading, we hear the two angels ask them one of those most amusing questions in Scripture: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” And just a few moments earlier, one of the disciples had asked Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”—which showed that, after all the years that Jesus had spent with them, and even those 40 days when it said that he had been instructing them about the kingdom of God, they still aren’t quite getting it. They still are thinking in terms of an earthly Messiah who is going to restore an earthly kingdom.

But they do grasp one thing that is completely different from that scene in “Forrest Gump.” And that is that this moment is a kingly moment. They understand that Jesus, their risen Lord, is about to do something dramatic and definitive. They just don’t know what it is yet.

It’s not a matter of him just leaving. Rather, Christ’s Ascension is the moment of his royal enthronement. As the psalm said: “God mounts his throne amid shouts of joy.” And as St. Paul wrote in our second reading, in his letter to the Ephesians, God the Father seated our Lord at his right hand in the heavens, 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. St. Paul is speaking of every kind of supernatural power. And if Christ is above every kind of supernatural power, then we can be quite sure that he is above every earthly power: every leader, every government, every person in any earthly authority that we ever encounter in our day-to-day lives.

Each Sunday we say in the Creed that we believe that Christ ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He is seated; but he did not sit down to rest, as if he were tired. Rather, he took the throne to rule. He did not sit down because he was done; in a lot of ways, he was just getting started.

Our Lord had accomplished the mission on earth for which the Father had sent him forth. The Father had sent him into a fallen and suffering world. And our Lord:

  • had emptied himself in the Incarnation, when he became man: he had united the divine nature of the Godhead, and the human nature that we share with him in our humanity: these two natures united for eternity in the one person of Christ.
  • In his public ministry, our Lord had revealed who he was and the will of the Father in al the things that he had said and done: in his teaching; in his miraculous signs; and in the other things that he did.
  • He had called the Twelve and other disciples, and he had formed them, day by day, month by month.
  • And when his hour came, he gave himself over to suffer and die for us on the cross, in his one perfect sacrifice; and he conquered death and rose from the grave.
  • He had thus begun the Resurrection, himself as the firstfruits of that transformation into which he will bring the entire universe.
  • And he had poured out all of the grace that he would give to us through the sacraments that he had instituted.

All of this he had accomplished: all of this and more. And now it was time to take it to the next stage. And there are at least two aspects of this next stage that we can consider.

One aspect is that he was continuing to blaze the trail for us. The Letter to the Hebrews [12:2] calls him, in a word that gets translated differently: the “leader” or the “author” or the “pioneer” of our faith. He had said in the Gospel of John [14:6] that he himself is the Way to the Father. He was opening for us the path that we would follow. He had already opened for us the passage through his suffering and death to the resurrection. And now it was time for him to complete that journey, that we would follow—through suffering and death like his, to a resurrection like his, to union with God the Father—himself blazing that trail so that we can follow, all the way to the Beatific Vision.

The Dominican Father Jean Corbon has written [The Wellspring of Worship, pp. 65-66] of the eternal joy of the Father at the return of his beloved Son. He writes:

[Christ] had gone forth as the only Son; now [in the Ascension] he returns in the flesh, bringing the Father’s adoptive Sons: “Look, I and the children whom God has given me.” The Father’s indescribable joy has taken concrete form and embodiment in the countless faces that mirror the face of his beloved Son.

[While pointing at members of the congregation:] The countless faces that mirror the face of his beloved Son. For this is the fullness of Christ’s mission from the Father: to be sent forth by the Father into this fallen world, and to return back to the Father, leading to the Father all those who he has redeemed; all those, you and I, who he has saved and transformed to be like him; all those who through baptism he has brought through adoption into being sons and daughters of his Father; to bring all of us back into a loving communion between us and the Father.

This is one aspect. Another aspect is of course connected to it. How will each of us complete this journey, that he has blazed for us, following where he has led, to his Father? How will we do it? Well, that would the mission for which the Father and the Son would send forth the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity: the Holy Spirit. We know that the death and the resurrection of Christ are two events that go together. We can hardly speak of one without speaking of the other. And another pair of events that have to go together are Christ’s Ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

Through the working of the Holy Spirit, our Lord would reach every person, everywhere. He would enlighten minds. He would move hearts. And he would draw together into a unity, in his Church, his body, all of these that he had called forth and redeemed. He would apply to us all those fruits of his Redemption, all the grace, through the sacraments. And he would make possible what he had said [John 14:12]: that “whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.

It is for that reason that St. Luke had to write two books. Part 1 was the Gospel, in which, as he said in the beginning of Part 2, he had written about all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, a journey that led to Jerusalem and is completed there. But then began Part 2, the Acts of the Apostles, in which Jesus continues to teach and continues to act, in a greater and more extensive way, through the Holy Spirit, in his body the Church—starting in Jerusalem, and then throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And this is a story that did not end when Luke wrote the last words of the Book of Acts, but it continues until this day, until this very moment. And the world has never been the same.

And so for the apostles, on that Thursday on a hill near Jerusalem, it was time to stop looking at the sky. Now, Forrest Gump in that movie may have just been going home to Alabama, and all of his followers may have just left, not knowing what to do. But Christ had promised that he would send the Holy Spirit. He had promised that his apostles would receive power, that they would be clothed with power from on high. Surely they can almost hear the rumbling of what is coming. But it hasn’t come yet. And so what they need to do is to wait, expectantly. And so today we have to leave the apostles in a bit of a cliffhanger. What were they going to do? They were going to go back to Jerusalem, and, as we hear, they gave themselves over to praising God in the temple, and they gave themselves over with one accord to prayer, together with Mary the mother of Jesus—the first novena, in the 9 days following the Ascension, before Pentecost.

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Published in: on May 16, 2010 at 11:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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