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Ascension of the Lord: “Space Travel” of the Heart

May 22, 2017
Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, Year A - Sunday, May 28th, 2017
Matthew’s Gospel for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (28:16-20) presents us the majestic, final scene in Galilee that brings the evangelist’s account to a fitting conclusion. In perfect harmony with his presentation of Jesus, Matthew has chosen to end his Gospel not with a visual or pictorial representation of Jesus’ new heavenly power, nor with sharing bread or touching his body, but with a profoundly simple scene featuring the words of Jesus, the great Teacher and Master (cf. 23:8-10). The Ascension scene is the goal to which the Gospel tends and a provocative synthesis of its fundamental message.
Today’s passage is divided into two parts: the appearance of the Risen Christ to the disciples in Galilee (28:16-18a), as promised in 28:7; and the instructions of Jesus, which conclude the Gospel (28:18b-20). The disciples go to the mountain as Jesus had commanded, a reminder of three earlier mountains: the mountain (5:1-2) where Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7); the high mountain (17:1) where he was transfigured (17:2) and his passion prediction was ratified (16:21); and the Mount of Olives (24:3), the location of his eschatological discourse (chapters 24-25).
Matthew’s Eleven
Let us consider the reality of this small group of apostles and disciples commissioned on the mountain in Galilee. Could any group of people be more human, more ordinary, more dysfunctional, or more unpromising? How much more obvious could human frailty be than in this group? Mired in treachery, cowardice, and denial to name but a few of the weak points of those who would become the “pillars” of our Church! Only when the one called “Rock” realized the full significance of his denial would the ministry of Church leadership and unity be placed on his shoulders. Two of them, James and John, displayed such naked ambition that they even included their mother in their attempts to secure their own glory (Matthew 20:20-21)! Some would ask questions that clearly revealed their profound ignorance of the Master's message and life. Yet in the midst of such pathetic frailty and brokenness, Matthew’s Gospel cuts through it all by telling us that “the eleven disciples” made their way to Galilee, “to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them” (28:16). No longer the Twelve – that symbolic number that gave them continuity with the long history of Judaism – but the Eleven: recalling the tragic defection of Judas Iscariot who would fail most miserably. In spite of such blatant humanity and brazen failure, the eleven are entrusted with the dream and mission of the Risen Lord.
A universal mission
In verse 18, the Risen Jesus claims universal power in heaven and on earth. Since this universal power belongs to the Risen Lord, he gives the eleven a mission that is universal. They are to make disciples of all nations. While “all nations” is understood by some scholars as referring only to all Gentiles, it is probable that it included the Jews as well. Baptism is the means of entrance into the community of the Risen One: the Church. The end of Matthew’s Gospel also contains the clearest expression in the New Testament of Trinitarian belief. It may have been the baptismal formula of Matthew’s Church, but primarily it designates the effect of baptism, the union of the one baptized with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In verse 20, Jesus’ injunction “to observe all that I have commanded you” refers certainly to the moral teaching found in Matthew’s Gospel – preeminently that of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The commandments of Jesus are the standard of Christian conduct; not the Mosaic Law as such, even though some of the Mosaic commandments have been invested with the authority of Jesus.
The words “And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (28:20) have a special ring to them. They send us back to the beginning of Matthew’s account when Jesus is given the name “Emmanuel” (1:23). In that name we find the answer to humanity’s deepest longings for God throughout the ages. Emmanuel is both a prayer and plea (on our behalf) and a promise and declaration on God’s part. When we pronounce the word, we are really praying and pleading: “God, be with us!” And when God speaks it, the Almighty, Eternal, Omnipresent Creator of the world is telling us: “I am with you” in Jesus. At the conclusion of the Gospel, the name Emmanuel is alluded to when the Risen Jesus assures his disciples of his continued presence: “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (28:20). God did indeed keep his promise in Jesus.
It is the Eucharist that confirms these words “I am with you.” Christ said to his Apostles, “Go forth and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (28:19). From Christ the way of Christian initiation leads directly to the Eucharist: “I am with you. I am with every one of you. I become part of your flesh and blood. I share your very existence.”
Touching the Risen Lord
In his book “Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, USA, 2011), Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI writes of the mystery of the Ascension of the Lord (p. 286):
The old manner of human companionship and encounter is over. From now on we can touch Jesus only “with the Father.” Now we can touch him only by ascending. From the Father’s perspective, in his communion with the Father, he is accessible and close to us in a new way. This new accessibility presupposes a newness on our part as well. Through Baptism, our life is already hidden with Christ in God – in our current existence we are already “raised” with him at the Father’s right hand (cf. Col 3:1–3).
If we enter fully into the essence of our Christian life, then we really do touch the risen Lord, and then we really do become fully ourselves. Touching Christ and ascending belong together. And let us not forget that for John the place of Christ’s “exaltation” is his Cross and that our own ever-necessary “ascension,” our “going up on high” in order to touch him, has to be traveled in company with the crucified Jesus. Christ, at the Father’s right hand, is not far away from us. At most we are far from him, but the path that joins us to one another is open. And this path is not a matter of space travel of a cosmic-geographical nature: it is the “space travel” of the heart, from the dimension of self-enclosed isolation to the new dimension of world embracing divine love.
“Christ has come so close to us”
Only in his physical separation from the historical scene can Jesus’ spiritual union with the entire world for all time be complete. Jesus left the world one day in order to be available to all people throughout all time. He had to dissolve bonds he had made with his friends in order to be available for everybody. We move towards heaven to the extent that we approach Jesus. The words of one of Blessed John Henry Newman’s parochial sermons inspire us on this great feast (PPS, vol. 6, no. 10):
Christ’s going to the Father is at once a source of sorrow, because it involves His absence; and of joy, because it involves His presence. And out of the doctrine of His resurrection and ascension, spring those Christian paradoxes, often spoken of in Scripture, that we are sorrowing, yet always rejoicing; as having nothing, yet possessing all things (2 Cor 6:10).
This, indeed, is our state at present; we have lost Christ and we have found Him; we see Him not, yet we discern Him. We embrace His feet, yet He says, “Touch Me not.” How is this? It is thus: we have lost the sensible and conscious perception of Him; we cannot look on Him, hear Him, converse with Him, follow Him from place to place; but we enjoy the spiritual, immaterial, inward, mental, real sight and possession of Him; a possession more real and more present than that which the Apostles had in the days of His flesh, because it is spiritual, because it is invisible.
Christ, the reason for our joy
Finally, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI leaves us with a consoling image of the Risen Lord who never leaves us. In his book “Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, USA, 2011), Benedict writes (pp. 284-285):
Because Jesus is with the Father, he has not gone away but remains close to us. Now he is no longer in one particular place in the world as he had been before the “Ascension”: now, through his power over space, he is present and accessible to all – throughout history and in every place. There is a very beautiful story in the Gospel (Mk 6:45–52 and parallel passages) where Jesus anticipates this kind of closeness during his earthly life and so makes it easier for us to understand.
After the multiplication of the loaves, the Lord makes the disciples get into the boat and go before him to Bethsaida on the opposite shore, while he himself dismisses the people. He then goes “up on the mountain” to pray. So the disciples are alone in the boat. There is a headwind, and the lake is turbulent. They are threatened by the power of the waves and the storm. The Lord seems to be far away in prayer on his mountain. But because he is with the Father, he sees them. And because he sees them, he comes to them across the water; he gets into the boat with them and makes it possible for them to continue to their destination.
This is an image for the time of the Church—intended also for us. The Lord is “on the mountain” of the Father. Therefore he sees us. Therefore he can get into the boat of our life at any moment. Therefore we can always call on him; we can always be certain that he sees and hears us. In our own day, too, the boat of the Church travels against the headwind of history through the turbulent ocean of time. Often it looks as if it is bound to sink. But the Lord is there, and he comes at the right moment. “I go away, and I will come to you” – that is the essence of Christian trust, the reason for our joy.
[The readings for the Ascension are: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23; and Matthew 28:16-20.]
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