JESUS IS PRESENT WITH US IN A NEW WAY
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47; Heb 9:24-28; 10:19-23 or Eph 1:17-23; Lk 24:46-53]
The feast of the Ascension is often understood as the departure of Jesus from the apostles and the Church. It was considered a kind of farewell event. This is because Luke the evangelist portrayed the Ascension in a spatial manner. “As he said this he was lifted up while they looked on, and a cloud took him from their sight.” It was a visual sight of His disappearance from them. So much so until the late 1980’s, there was a change in the liturgical action on Ascension Thursday. Even when I was a young priest, after the gospel on the Feast of Ascension, the altar server would take away the paschal candle and then kept it in the sacristy to symbolize that Jesus was no longer with us.
But this is not the primary meaning of the Ascension. What Ascension celebrates is the New Way Jesus is now with us because of the authority Jesus is invested with at His Ascension. That explains why the Paschal Candle is no longer removed after the gospel on Ascension Thursday but only after the last mass at Pentecost to underscore that Easter is a single event with a threefold dimension, namely, His resurrection, ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit. In fact, all the gospels present the glorification in this manner. They are all read within a single day. In John’s gospel, we read that our Lord appeared to the women in the morning and by evening, He was with the disciples, bestowing upon them the Holy Spirit, a sign that He was now seated at the right hand of the Father. (cf John 20:19-23) Furthermore, earlier on He told Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” (Jn 20:17) However, in the following week, He invited Thomas to touch His wounds, implying that He had returned to the Father. (cf Jn 20:24-29)
So why then did St Luke insert the Forty days interval? It was meant to be catechesis for the early Christians. Forty is a significant number in the bible for it denotes completion. We read that Moses was at Mount Sinai for forty days. The people of Israel spent forty years in the desert in preparation for entry into the Promised Land. Elijah fasted for forty days when he made his journey to Mount Horeb. Jesus fasted and prayed for forty days in the wilderness. St Luke wanted the Christians to realize that the journey of the Church has just begun in the second part of the gospel, which he entitled “the Acts of the Apostles.” Like the apostles in the early Church, it was necessary for Christians to prepare themselves for their long-haul mission to proclaim the Good News.
How were the disciples to prepare themselves to continue after Christ? Firstly, in the Ascension, Jesus was not leaving the Church. On the contrary, He had always been with the Church and is part of the Church. He is the head and we are His body. So the Church cannot ever be without Jesus. The Church is the Sacrament of Jesus. Hence, the angel told the disciples, “Why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky? Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, this same Jesus will come back in the same way as you have seen him go there.” Jesus might have disappeared from their sight but He comes to them in a new way, not physically or visually but in Spirit. Indeed, Jesus, before He ascended into heaven, said to them, “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:20)
Secondly, with the Ascension, Jesus was not just resurrected but returned to His previous authority as the Eternal Son of the Father sharing in the Father’s divine powers. This is what it means when we confess in the creed that Jesus was seated at the right hand of the Father. He is now able to be with us all without being limited by time and space. He now has the power and authority to rule the world. This is what St Paul wrote in His letter to the Ephesians. “This you can tell from the strength of his power at work in Christ, when he used it to raise him from the dead and to make him sit at his right hand, in heaven, far above every Sovereignty, Authority, Power, or Domination, or any other name that can be named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. He has put all things under his feet, and made him, as the ruler of everything, the head of the Church; which is his body, the fullness of him who fills the whole creation.”
Thirdly, Jesus is with the Church in a new way through the Holy Spirit. The Ascension marks the preparation for the arrival of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. Jesus in His earthly life promised the disciples that the Father would send the Holy Spirit to them in His name. This is why after Ascension; the Church prepares for the arrival of the Holy Spirit by having a novena to the Holy Spirit. Jesus told the disciples before He ascended to wait for the Holy Spirit. “When he had been at table with them, he had told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for what the Father had promised. ‘It is’ he had said ‘what you have heard me speak about: John baptised with water but you, not many days from now, will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.'”
Fourthly, with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, not only is Jesus with us but He is in us and sharing His powers with us as well. St Paul speaks of the gifts that Jesus bestows upon His Church in the Holy Spirit. “(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Eph 4:9-13) We are empowered by the Holy Spirit and with the same anointing that Jesus received when He was on earth to do what Jesus did. This was what the Lord promised His disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (Jn 14:12-14)
Hence, with the Ascension, the Lord could command us to be His witnesses in the world. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:18-20) Indeed, when the apostles asked, “‘Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know times or dates that the Father has decided by his own authority, but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth.'” We will proclaim Christ not with our own strength and wisdom but with the power from God. He said, “And now I am sending down to you what the Father has promised. Stay in the city then, until you are clothed with the power from on high.”
So with the Ascension, we are reminded that although the Lord cannot be seen physically today with our eyes, yet He can be seen with the eyes of faith, as the Lord told Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (Jn 20:29) We are to make present the Lord in our lives, in our words and deeds. We must continue the work of Jesus in proclaiming the Good News to the poor, the truth about our sins, the need for forgiveness and Jesus as our Savior. The Lord said, “You see how it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to this.” Thus, it is not sufficient to proclaim Jesus as our Saviour but we must be witness to His death and resurrection in our own lives. This is what the letter of Hebrews says, “through the blood of Jesus we have the right to enter the sanctuary, by a new way which he has opened for us, a living opening through the curtain, that is to say, his body. And we have the supreme high priest over all the house of God. So as we go in, let us be sincere in heart and filled with faith, our minds sprinkled and free from any trace of bad conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us keep firm in the hope we profess because the one who made the promise is faithful.” (Heb 10:19-23)
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
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