The Ascension of the Lord - May 21, 2023


The Ascension of the Lord - May 21, 2023

Acts 1: 1-11; Eph 1: 17-23; Mt 28: 16-20

Theme: Jesus’ Ascension is not a Farewell but a Commission

The Gospel’s stories that we heard on the last two Sundays (taken from the Last Supper discourse in chapter fourteen of the Gospel of John) prepared us for this Sunday of the Ascension of our Lord and for the next Sunday, the Pentecost. In both Gospels of the fifth and sixth Sundays of Easter, Jesus prepared his disciples that he would go back to his Father. He instructed them to keep his commandments as proof that they loved him, and as a result, he would ask his Father to send them an Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, who would be with them always. The first part of this discourse is fulfilled in today’s celebration. We are celebrating the Ascension of our Lord. Jesus is lifted up to heaven and has returned to his Father. We heard two different versions of this event, the version of Luke (in the first reading) and that of Matthew (in the gospel). The two accounts do not contradict each other. Rather, both emphasize the types of missions that Jesus has left us which the Church wants us to know and meditate on. The physical departure of Jesus to heaven is not a farewell or the end of everything. Rather it is a commission. Luke and Matthew teach us that before his ascension, Jesus left to his disciples including you and me some missions to accomplish. He commissions us (1) to be his witnesses everywhere (see Acts 1: 8b), (2) to make disciples of all nations (see Matthew 28: 19), and (3) to teach the people to observe what he commanded us (see Matthew 28: 20).

Before we analyze the missions that our Lord expects us to do, let us look at one important detail that Luke mentions in our first reading. He says that the Ascension takes place on the fortieth day after the resurrection of Jesus (v. 3). The Church also celebrates the Ascension of the Lord (which fell normally last Thursday, May 18th) forty days after the resurrection (April 9th). Note that in the Scripture, the number forty conveys the symbolic meaning of preparation. We can recall Noah’s forty days in the ark, Moses’s forty days on Mount Sinai, and Jesus’ own forty days in the desert before he started his ministry. And now, our Lord needed a forty-day period after his resurrection to strengthen the faith of his followers and prepare them for the mission he assigns them. Celebrating the Ascension of our Lord today, forty days after Easter, the Church reminds us that all of us have been well prepared to take up the mission Jesus has left us.  Now it is time to work.

Indeed, Jesus has left us a mission of being his witnesses everywhere we are. While Jesus speaks to his disciples about his mission, the “spiritual” kingdom of God, the disciples on the contrary are interested in the “physical kingdom” which is the overturning of the Roman power. They express their mind through their question: “Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6). Here the disciples unveil the motivation for their discipleship. They have been following Jesus for about three years with a mindset to take power from the Romans. Why do you and I follow Jesus? What is our motivation for us being Christians? This verse teaches us that in our relationship with Jesus, it is not just we who request Jesus to do us favors but we need to pay attention and know what Jesus asks us to do for him. The Church here exhorts us to recall our baptismal motivation. In Baptism, we become the “other Christ”, not primarily for the material needs, but rather for being Jesus’ witnesses who implement God’s kingdom wherever we live. In his answer, Jesus tells his disciples that it is not their business to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority (see v. 7). As Christians, our business is, not to know with exactitude when God grants our requests, but rather the mission that he assigns us. Our primary motivation as Christians is to be the witnesses of Jesus everywhere we are until the ends of the earth (see v. 8).

Jesus has left us a mission of making disciples of all people. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28: 19). Pay attention to what Jesus said before commissioning them. He said, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (V. 18). The commission to make disciples all nations is associated with Jesus’ power. This power is entrusted to the Church through both the ordained ministers and lay Christians. All of us work together to make the people become disciples of Jesus, starting with our family members, relatives, friends, and all people around us. There are still many people who are not yet followers of Jesus. It is our mission to make them disciples of Jesus.

Jesus has left us a mission to teach people what he has commanded us (see vv. 19-20).  There are some points that we need to know about this mission. First, to teach the people what Jesus has commanded us means that we need first to know what he taught or commanded us. We cannot teach what we do not know. Jesus taught his disciples many things. We recall for instance his Sermon on the Mount, all the parables, and the teachings about the commandments to love God and love neighbors as oneself. The disciples are expected to know all this and become familiar with them in order to teach them to others. You and I can teach other people if we first learn from Jesus. Our Lord teaches us at the celebration of the Eucharist and in the Scripture readings. That is why we are encouraged to attend Masses and read the Bible.

Second, in this mission, Jesus is asking us not to teach the people what he has commanded us but to teach them to “observe” what he has commanded us. The focus here is on “observe’. There is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God. The first, knowing about God, reflects the knowledge that people have about God with no intention of transforming their lives. This is like a person who studied a course in hydrodynamics, but he/she did not learn how to swim. The second, to know God, alludes to conversion. It is like someone who learns how to swim. We have sadly neglected this important aspect. With good intentions, many Christians have learned “about Christianity” but not “how to live the Christian life’. Many have learned about prayer but not how to pray. Many have been told that they should go to Mass but not how to actively attend Mass. Jesus is asking us to teach the people, not the theories but the practice of his teachings. It is by swimming that a person learns and becomes a swimmer. By observing Jesus’ teaching people learn and become disciples of Jesus.  

Third, in this mission, Jesus is asking his disciples and all of us to teach people to observe, not what we want, nor what the people want to hear, but what he has commanded us. The Church has a mission to teach the word of God, regardless of if the people like it or not. Jesus is asking us not to change his teaching to please the people but to change the people (“Make disciples all nations.”) to please him. We, the Witnesses of Jesus, are called to preach the truth and condemn evil no matter who commits it and the circumstance in which it is committed. Wrong is wrong and the truth is truth.   

In this Solemnity of the Ascension of our Lord, the Church reminds us of all the missions that we received on the day of our baptism. These missions may seem difficult. But note that we cannot fulfill them without the help of our Lord. For this reason, Jesus reassures his disciples and all of us of his permanent presence. “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 20).  And Saint Paul says in our second reading that with the Holy Spirit, the eyes of our hearts will be enlightened and so we will know the deep meaning of our call as the witnesses of Jesus. (See Ephesians 1: 18). Our lord is always with us. His Holy Spirit sustains us in our mission. Next Sunday, we will renew the power of the Holy Spirit that we received on the days of our Baptism and confirmation. I highly encourage all of us not to miss that Mass. Pay attention to what Jesus recommends to his disciple including you and me in our first reading. He enjoined us not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, the coming of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 1: 4-5). Next Sunday, we need to gather here in our Church and experience the Holy Spirit who will renew all the gifts and graces that we received on the days of our baptism and confirmation. Make sure that you do not miss it. With this renewal of the Holy Spirit, we will be able to carry out the missions of becoming the witnesses of Jesus, making disciples of all people around us, and teaching them to observe what he has commanded us. Amen.   

Fr. Leon Ngandu, SVD

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