Ascension of the Lord: Christ kicks it up a notch

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Ascension of the Lord, Year B: May 20, 2012
Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47; Eph 4:1-13; Mark 16:15-20

On that first Good Friday, our Lord Jesus suffered, died upon the cross, and was buried. On the third day, that first Easter Sunday, he rose from the dead, his body transformed, the firstfruits of the Resurrection. For the next 40 days, he appeared often to his disciples, teaching them about the Kingdom of God. And then, as we heard in our first reading and our Gospel reading, he ascended into heaven.

Today we celebrate our Lord’s Ascension; and so, we might say, we celebrate his retirement. His work has been accomplished; his earthly life is done; and so it’s time to go back home and sit down and relax. It’s time to retire.

No! Christ’s Ascension was not retirement! He wasn’t done; he isn’t done! To be sure, his death and resurrection were of cosmic–historical importance; but now that they were accomplished, it was time to advance to the next stage in his project of Redemption. We heard St. Luke write in our first reading: “In the first book”—that would be his Gospel—”I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up.” By implication, his second book, the Book of Acts, will deal with all that Jesus continues to do after his Ascension through his apostles. The first book shows Christ heading toward Jerusalem; and the second will show the Church exploding forth from Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Christ’s Ascension was a return—but this return has a great significance that we need to understand. Theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas will speak of the “exitus” and the “reditus”: that is, of the “going forth” and the “return.” In the beginning, God’s creation of the whole universe was a great “going forth” from God; and then there was supposed to be a great “return” of the whole universe to the Father in love and praise and thanksgiving. And those who were supposed to lead all of creation in this return was the human race—not because we are the highest or most powerful of creatures, but because we alone have both an intellectual or rational soul (as the angels also have) and a material body (as all the rest of creation has). So we sum up creation; and we were to lead it in its great return to the Father. How did we do? Not so great! Instead, we sinned, wounded all of creation, and led it away from the Father. But when our Lord Jesus Christ became incarnate, he became the New Adam, the new head of a renewed humanity, who would lead us, and all of creation, back to the Father.

In his Ascension, he completed blazing that trail of return. The author and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2) has reached the right hand of the Father. In him, our human nature has entered the “Father’s house”; and he calls each of us to follow where he has led, and sends his Holy Spirit to help us do it.

“God mounts his throne to shouts of joy”: Christ is enthroned in majesty as King of the Universe. And he is seated not to rest but to rule. The project of Redemption marches onward. It is time for it to advance to the next stage; and so Christ has a job for each of us to do. What is it that we hear him say in the Gospel reading, right before he ascends? “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” The whole world! Every creature! Not a stone left unturned; not a person left untouched. That’s quite a commission!

And yet it’s a completely understandable commission when we think about it. The oneness that we hear about in the second reading leads to the universality of the mission. For there are, not many gods, but one God: one God and Father of all, who is the fount of all creation and all redemption; one Son, one Lord, Jesus Christ, with the one Church he founded as his one body and one Bride; the one Spirit sent forth upon this Church. One faith, one baptism, one hope. By its very nature, Christ’s Church is one.

And by its very nature, Christ’s Church is missionary—since, as the Second Vatican Council told us (Ad gentes, 2), it is from the mission (or sending forth) of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit that she draws her origin. The Church is one and the Church is missionary; and we are sent to the whole world, to every creature, without exception. And as Pope John Paul II reminded us (Redemptoris missio, 1), this mission “is still very far from completion.” Even 2000 years after our Lord’s coming, when we look at the whole world, we see that “this mission is still only beginning and that we must commit ourselves wholeheartedly to its service.”

“Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” We have a glorious, risen Lord, who has conquered death and is seated in majesty at the right hand of the Father. We have the good news of his grace and love, a message of salvation that everyone needs to hear. We do not have the timeline of exactly what will happen when; but we have our marching orders, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Our Lord reigns; his mission advances; and each of us has a part to play. “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” Forward march!

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