ASCENSION AS THE CALL TO SHARE IN THE EXALTATION OF CHRIST
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ ACTS 1:1-11; EPHESIANS 4:1-13; MARK 16:15-20]
What is the feast of the Ascension all about? We read, “after saying this, he was taken up to heaven as they watched him, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” So for the ordinary uninformed Catholic, the image of Jesus taken away from our sight as He ascended into the sky would be all that he or she understands. If that were the case, there is no real significance of this celebration, or worse, the connotation that Jesus has left us for heaven, and we are now orphans. Such an interpretation would be too physicalistic and we miss out the intended symbol of what the ascension of Jesus is about.
The significance of the Ascension is that Jesus is exalted on high to share in the glory of the His Father, the glory that was His before the foundation of the world. The resurrection of Christ does not have this symbol of glorification and power. It underscores Jesus’ victory over sin and death and the new life He has. Consequently, the feast of the Ascension is celebrated to highlight that Christ not only has overcome sin and death, but that He now shares in the divine power of the Father. “After the Lord Jesus had talked with them, he was taken up to heaven and sat at the right side of God.” This is what it means when we say that Jesus sat on the right hand of the Father. To be seated on the right of someone is to be right hand man, the one who is next in line from the perspective of power.
With the resumption of His divinity and powers, Jesus now rules heaven and earth. This is what the responsorial psalm is celebrating. “All peoples, clap your hands, cry to God with shouts of joy! For the Lord, the Most High, we must fear, great king over all the earth. God goes up with shouts of joy; the Lord goes up with trumpet blast. Sing praise for God, sing praise, sing praise to our king, sing praise. God is king of all the earth, sing praise with all your skill. God is king over the nations; God reigns on his holy throne.” Indeed, the Ascension celebrates Christ’s exaltation as King over all creation.
However, the exaltation of our Lord is not His alone. He as the Head of the Church, His body has gone before us so that we too can share in His exaltation. This is what is prayed at the Collect, “Gladden us with holy joys, almighty God, and make us rejoice with devout thanksgiving, for the Ascension of Christ your Son is our exaltation, and where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope.” Just as His resurrection gives us hope of our resurrection, His exaltation also reminds us of the hope of sharing His glorified and exalted life. If the feast of the Ascension is so important for the Church, it is because it speaks of our ultimate destiny and calling in life, which is to share in the life and the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. For us now, we already share this exalted life as a foretaste when we live His transcendent life through faith in hope and love.
For this reason, it would be wrong to suggest that the Ascension of the Lord means His absence from the Church. On the contrary, His ascension means that as His body, the Church, we are called to follow where Christ our Head is. Precisely, because He is glorified and exalted, symbolized by the act of ascending on high, He did not leave us to be alone but in order that He could come in a New Way to be with us forever, unrestrained by space and time. This was what the two men in white told the apostles, “Galileans, why are you standing there looking up at the sky? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come back in the same way that you saw him go to heaven.”
How, then, can we share in this exalted life of our Lord? St Paul tells us that first and foremost the exalted life would entail a life of unity. Just as Christ is one with the Father in the Spirit, we too must live a life of unity and love. He wrote, “I urge you, then – I who am a prisoner because I serve the Lord: live a life that measures up to the standard God set when he called you. Be always humble, gentle, and patient. Show your love by being tolerant with one another. Do your best to preserve the unity which the Spirit gives by means of the peace that binds you together. There is one body and one Spirit, just as there is one hope to which God has called you. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; there is one God and Father of all mankind, who is Lord of all, works through all, and is in all.” Such a life of humility, compassion and gentleness is what an exalted life entails.
Secondly, living the glorified life of Christ is to live a life of service. St Paul says, “Each of us has received a special gift in proportion to what Christ has given.” Christ “appointed some to be apostles, others to be prophets, others to be evangelists, others to be pastors and teachers. He did this to prepare all God’s people for the work of Christian service, in order to build up the body of Christ.” Indeed, we are called to use our gifts as Jesus did when He was anointed by the Holy Spirit to give up His life in service of His brothers and sisters, especially the poor, marginalized and sinners. We too must likewise be the channels of God’s mercy and compassion to others, especially the weak and the lost.
Thirdly, to live the exalted life is to build ourselves up in Christ. This entails on one hand, the building up of the Body of Christ, and on the other, it means building each individual to become more and more like Christ. This is what St Paul says, “And so we shall all come together to that oneness in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God; we shall become mature people, reaching to the very height of Christ’s full stature.” It is to grow in the perfection of life in imitation of our Lord; to grow in Christian maturity so that we can attain the full manhood in Christ, which is the call of every Christian. In other words, we are called to strive to become saints in Christ by identifying ourselves with Him in every way.
Finally, to live the exalted life is to share this life with everyone. The call to proclaim the Good News to all of creation is an obligation of every Christian. We have not received this new and exalted life for ourselves but for all of humanity. If we are convinced of the greatness of this life, we too must share with others this Good News we have inherited. The command to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth is the final command of our Lord. When the apostles were concerned about the restoration of the kingdom of Israel, the Lord told them to be His witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The Good News is not imposed but given as a free gift. The Lord commands us “Go throughout the whole world and preach the gospel to all mankind. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.” The condemnation is self-condemnation. By rejecting Christ, they forfeit for themselves the opportunity to share the glorified life of Christ. But in accepting Christ, they will live that life of glory with Him.
But how can we do this? How do we spread the gospel? We do not do it alone. By ourselves, we will not succeed. That is why Jesus ascended on high to give us His gifts. He wants to empower us just as He was empowered by the Holy Spirit. St Paul wrote, “So the one who came down is the same one who went up, above and beyond the heavens, to fill the whole universe with his presence. It was he who ‘gave gifts to mankind’; he appointed some to be apostles, others to be prophets, others to be evangelists, others to be pastors and teachers.” Indeed, without the Lord working in us, we cannot by our own strength reach maturity in Christ. We need the grace of God.
This is what the Lord also promised the disciples when He sent them out. “Believers will be given the power to perform miracles: they will drive out demons in my name; they will speak in strange tongues; if they pick up snakes and drink any poison, they will not be harmed; they will place their hands on sick people, and these will get well.” Indeed, the gospel of Christ spread to the whole world not simply because “the disciples went and preached everywhere” but because “the Lord worked with them and proved that their preaching was true by the miracles that were performed.” We need the Lord to work in and through us.
Indeed, not by might but by the power of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, we need the Spirit of Jesus to empower us and give us the zeal, the passion, wisdom, conviction and fortitude to bring His Good News to all. This explains why Jesus instructed the disciples not to go out till they had received the Holy Spirit from on high. “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift I told you about, the gift my Father promised. John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus has not gone from us but He comes to us in a New Way in the Holy Spirit. And not only is He with us again but “when he went up to the very heights, he took many captives with him; he gave gifts to mankind.” He also said to them, “The times and occasions are set by my Father’s own authority, and it is not for you to know when they will be. But when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be filled with power, and you will be witnesses for me.” So with the apostles, let us be watchful and continue to pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit anew into our lives so that, filled with His power and gifts, we can with joy live the exalted life, and with power proclaim Him in the world by our words and deeds of compassion and love.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
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