Ascension Acts of the Apostles 1:1–11; Ephesians 1:17–23 (Year A); Luke 24:46–53
No back-up plan Jesus gave to his followers the task of completing his work by sharing the Good News with the rest of the world.
There’s an ancient legend about the ascension of Jesus into heaven. According to the legend, when Jesus reached heaven, his body still showed the wounds of his crucifixion.
His hands and feet still bore the prints from the nails. His side bore the mark from the spear. His back bore the stripes from the whip, and his head bore the wounds from the thorns.
When the people in heaven saw these marks, they fell on their knees before Jesus. They were astounded to see how much he had suffered.Then the angel Gabriel rose up and said to Jesus:
“Lord, how greatly you suffered on earth! Do all the people on earth know and appreciate how much you went through for them and how much you love them?’’
“Oh, no! Only a handful of people in Palestine know that. The rest haven’t even heard of me. They don’t know who I am. They don’t know how much I suffered, and how much I love them.’’
Gabriel was shocked to hear this. Then he said to Jesus: “How will all the rest of the people on earth ever learn about your suffering and your love?’’
“Just before I left, I told Peter, James, and John, and a few of their friends, to tell the rest of the world for me.
“They’ll tell as many people as they can. Those people, in turn, will tell other people. In that way, the whole world will eventually learn about my love for them.’’
Gabriel looked even more confused now. He knew how fickle people are. He knew how forgetful they are. He knew how prone to doubt they are. So he turned to Jesus and said:
“But, Lord, what if Peter, James, and John grow tired or frustrated? What if they forget about you? What if they begin to have doubts about you?
“And even if none of these things happen, what if the people they tell become frustrated? What if they forget? What if they begin to have doubts about you?
“Didn’t you take these things into account? Don’t you have a back-up plan just in case?’’
“I did take all these things into account, but I decided against a back-up plan. This is the only plan I have.
“I’m counting on Peter, James, and John not to let me down. I’m counting on the people they tell not to let me down.’’ Twenty centuries later, Jesus still has no other plan. He counted on Peter, James, and John, and they didn’t let him down. He counted on the people they told, and they didn’t let him down. And now Jesus counts on us.
The Feast of the Ascension is one of the most important feasts of the liturgical year.
It’s the day on which we celebrate Jesus’ return to his Father.
We might compare the Feast of the Ascension to the passing of a baton from one runner to another in a relay race.
On this day 2,000 years ago, Jesus passed the baton of his work to Peter, James, and John. They, in turn, passed it on to the people who came after them. They, in turn, passed it on to us. And now it is our turn to pass it on to others.
Practically speaking, what does this mean? Does it mean going out and preaching about Jesus, as Peter, James, and John did? Does it mean mounting soapboxes in shopping malls and telling everyone about Jesus?
It could mean this for some of us, but for most of us it means something much more basic than this. It means something much more fundamental. It means living out Jesus’ teaching in our own personal lives.
The way to begin preaching Jesus to the world is to begin preaching Jesus to ourselves. There’s an old Chinese proverb that says:
“If there is right in the soul, there will be beauty in the person. If there is beauty in the person, there will be harmony in the home. If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.’’
The way to begin preaching Jesus to the world is to begin living Jesus in our own lives. Once we begin to do this, the message of Jesus will begin to ripple out across the world. And if enough Christians do it, that ripple will turn into a tidal wave, and that tidal wave will change the face of the earth in a way we never dreamed possible.
This is the message of today’s feast. This is the challenge that today’s readings hold out to us.
Jesus is counting on us. Let’s close with these words of Jesus to his followers in the Sermon on the Mount. In the light of what we have just said, they take on special meaning. Jesus says:
“You are like salt for all mankind. But if salt loses its saltiness, there is no way to make it salty again. It has become worthless, so it is thrown out and people trample on it.
“You are like light for the whole world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. In the same way your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:13–16
Series II Ascension Acts of the Apostles 1:1–11; Ephesians 1:17–23; Luke 24:46–53
Parable of the seagull Jesus gave to us the responsibility to complete the work that he began.
Years ago Richard Bach wrote a best-selling book called Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was a fairy tale about a young seagull’s growth from childhood to adulthood.
At a critical point in the story, two beautiful white seagulls appear and tell young Jonathan that it is time for him to take an important step in his life.
Jonathan hesitates, but the two birds insist, saying to him, “One school is finished, and the time has come for another to begin.’’
Jonathan suddenly realizes that it is indeed time for him to leave the familiar beach and shoreline that he has become accustomed to as a young gull and to soar up into the sky, beyond the billowing white clouds.
Jonathan takes one last look at the beach. Then with the two white seagulls at his side, he soars into the blue sky and disappears into the billowing clouds.
As Albert Cylwicki points out in his book His Word Resounds, there’s a striking resemblance between that dramatic episode in Bach’s book and the dramatic episode in Jesus’ life that we just read in today’s gospel reading.
Obviously, young Jonathan resembles Jesus. He had finished one phase of his life and had to begin another.
Likewise, Jesus had finished one phase of his life and had to begin another.
Likewise, Jonathan’s rising up and disappearing into the clouds resembles Jesus’ rising up and disappearing into the clouds.
And, finally, the two white birds who spoke to Jonathan resemble the two men in white who spoke to the Apostles after Jesus had departed.
Whether Richard Bach intended it or not, this episode in his story helps us understand better the significance of the important feast that we celebrate today: the ascension of Jesus into heaven.
Jesus’ departure is not the end of his work on earth. It’s simply the end of the first phase of it: the phase that he carried out in a material body, visible to our eyes. Now begins the second phase: the phase that he will carry out in a spiritual body, invisible to our eyes.
The time for inaugurating God’s kingdom on earth is over. The time for spreading God’s kingdom across the earth is about to begin.
To put it in another way, Jesus has completed his work of preparing his followers for their mission of carrying the good news of God’s kingdom to the four corners of the earth.
It is now time to send the Holy Spirit upon them to empower and to guide them in this mission.
This is what we celebrate today on this feast. We celebrate the fact that 2,000 years ago on the day of his ascension, Jesus passed on to us the responsibility of carrying the good news of God’s kingdom to the four corners of the earth.
We celebrate the fact that Jesus passed on to us the responsibility of completing God’s kingdom on earth: namely, the work of preaching the Gospel to the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the homeless.
In his book The Song of the Bird, Anthony de Mello tells this story. He puts it in the first person to give it added impact. He says:
“On the street I saw a small girl cold and shivering in a thin dress, with little hope for a decent meal. I became angry and said to God, ‘Why did you permit this?’
“For a while God said nothing. That night he replied quite suddenly, ‘I certainly did something about it. I made you.’ ’’ De Mello’s story makes the same point that today’s feast makes.
On the day of his ascension 2,000 years ago, Jesus passed on to us the responsibility of completing the work that he began on earth. He passed on to us the responsibility of completing God’s kingdom on earth.
You and I, in this church today, share this responsibility. Not one of us is exempt.
Each one of us must decide how we can best carry out our part in this responsibility.
Let’s close with a prayer:
Lord Jesus, on this feast of your ascension into heaven, give us new eyes to see your face in the faces of those who are in need.
Give us new ears to hear your voice in the voices of those who cry out in pain.
Give us new tongues to tell your story to those who have never heard it.
Give us new hearts to share your love with those who have not yet experienced it.
Series III Ascension Acts of the Apostles 1:1–11 (Year A*), Ephesians 1:17–23 (Year A*), Luke 24:46–53
Call to witness We are called to live and love as Jesus did.
As [Jesus] was blessing them, he . . . was taken up into heaven. Luke 24:51
I n the days of manor houses in England, before the days of radio and television, it was the custom for manor owners to invite special guests on special occasions to a banquet.
It was also the custom for each guest to show their appreciation by providing some sort of entertainment after the banquet, like reading a poem, singing a song, dancing a jig, or telling a joke.
On one such occasion, a famous British actor was invited. The host saved him for last as a kind of grand finale to the occasion.
When his turn came he thrilled everyone with a spectacular reading of Psalm 23,“The Lord is my shepherd.” The applause was long and loud.
Then someone noticed the elderly aunt of the manor owner, sitting in a far corner of the room. She was somewhat deaf and had dozed through the entertainment.
“Auntie!” the person called out jokingly. “You haven’t sung for your supper yet! Come up here!”
Everyone applauded again—jokingly. The elderly aunt took them seriously and shuffled forward. Standing in front of the guests, she looked around nervously.
Then in a quivering voice she began, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
The guests were noticeably embarrassed. She had obviously not heard the actor’s splendid reading.
When she finished, however, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
Later, someone asked the famous actor, “How do you explain what happened? Why were the guests moved to tears by her flawed recital rather than your perfect reading?”
He replied, “It’s simple. You see, I know the psalm, but she knows the shepherd!”
That story makes a fitting introduction to today’s feast of the Ascension and how it applies to our lives.
The Ascension brings an end to the most incredible life that was ever lived on planet Earth the life of Jesus, the Son of God.
In his Letter to the Philippians, Saint Paul describes the life of Jesus in these well-chosen words:
[Jesus] always had the nature of God, but . . . took the nature of a servant. He . . . appeared in human likeness . . . and walked the path of obedience all the way to death—his death on the cross.
For this reason God raised him to the highest place above and gave him the name that is greater than any other name.
And so, in honor of the name of Jesus all beings . . . will fall on their knees, and all will openly proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord. 2:6–11
That brings us to the practical application of the feast of the Ascension to our own lives.
We might compare today’s feast to the passing of a baton in a relay race.
On this day, 2,000 years ago, Jesus passed the baton of his ministry to us to continue the work he began.
In today’s first reading, Jesus commissions us to be his witnesses to the world. He commissions us to complete the work he began on earth.
To put it in another way, what qualifications do ordinary Christians like ourselves have to do this? What do we know about preaching the word of God in our world?
And that brings us back to the story of the elderly aunt.
Like her, we received the Holy Spirit when we were baptized and confirmed. Jesus himself reminds us in today’s first reading:
“[W]hen the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be filled with power, and you will be witnesses for me . . . to the ends of the earth.” Acts of the Apostles 1:8
Like the elderly aunt, few of us are called to give up everything and set out as missionaries to the ends of the earth.
But all of us even the elderly, the young, and the infirm are called to witness to Jesus in whatever situation in life we may find ourselves.
Years ago, a journalist interviewed Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the great missionary doctor. In that interview, he gave a brief sketch of the kind of witness we are called to give. He said:
As I look back on my youth I realize how important to me were the help and understanding, the gentleness and wisdom of so many men and women who entered my life and became powers within me.
But they never knew it. Nor did they perceive the real significance of their help to me at the time.
That is a kind of witness all of us even the elderly, the young, and the infirm are capable of being and are called to be.
In other words, by our kindness, love, and living out of our own faith, we impact the lives of everyone around us.
Someone who had a flair for stating spiritual truths in a down-to-earth way said of witness: “It’s a lot like perfume. If it is really good, you don’t have to tell people you have it on. It speaks for itself.”
It is this kind of witness that the elderly aunt gave.
It is this kind of witness that we too are called to give.
It is a witness born of prayerfulness and faithfulness to our Christian calling in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, in poverty and in wealth.
It is a witness born of our everyday effort to strive to love God and neighbor as Jesus taught us to do. It is a witness born of our openness to the Holy Spirit who wants to help us do what we could never do on our own.
In brief, then, today we celebrate not only the return of Jesus to heaven but also the passing on to us of the baton of his ministry to continue the work he began.
Each one of us must now decide how we will run the rest of the race that Jesus began.