The Ascension of Jesus

Fr Thomas Karamakuzhiyil

The story is told about a priest who, talking about heaven in his homily, said: “We bring nothing with us when we die. There is no money in heaven! People in heaven have no money!”

The whole congregation was quiet, till a little girl whispered to her mother loud enough for all to hear: “Mama, mama, we’re in heaven already!”

The Gospels contain many parables of a master who sets out on a long journey and gives his servants charge of his estate until his return. In the feast of the Ascension of the Lord parable becomes reality. Jesus departs to his heavenly Father and leaves his disciples in charge of the affairs of his kingdom till his return in glory. Each of the Gospels we have ends with a scene in which Jesus finally takes leave of his disciples. These farewell scenes focus not on describing the event in detail but on the last words that Jesus leaves with his disciples. In fact, the very fact of a bodily ascension of Jesus into heaven is described only by Luke. It is Luke who wrote the Acts of the Apostles from which we got our first reading today. A later ending of Mark also includes the Ascension. There are important similarities and differences between Luke and Acts on the one hand, and Matthew and Mark on the other, regarding the details of this farewell scene.

For example, in Luke-Acts the Ascension takes place in Jerusalem, whereas in Matthew and Mark it takes place in Galilee. Both traditions, however, agree that it took place on a mountain. In Luke-Acts the Ascension happens forty days after the Resurrection during which period Jesus appears repeatedly to his followers. In Matthew and Mark there is no indication of this time period between the Resurrection and the Ascension, rather the first appearance of Jesus to his disciples after the resurrection is also the last. The gospel writers apparently were not aiming at accuracy in historical details; they were more concerned with transmitting a message.

So what is the message, the charge that Jesus gives his disciples as he takes physical leave of them? The message is phrased differently in the Acts and in the Gospels: “ But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) “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. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. (Mark 16:15-18)

These are the last words of Jesus as recorded differently in the Acts and in Matthew and Mark. All of them are in agreement that (a) Jesus gave his disciples a mission, a task to engage them till he returns in glory, and (b) he assured them of divine assistance in the carrying out of this mission.

The mission is to bear witness to the Good News of Jesus to the ends of the earth, to go into all nations of the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.. The universal reach of this mission is very clear. The message of Jesus is meant to be good news in the ears of all humankind irrespective of nationality or culture. Given the fact that till date many nations have embraced other religions in preference to the gospel, maybe it is time to ask: Are these people rejecting the message of Jesus or are they rejecting the messengers and the way in which they have presented it? The air of superiority and triumphalism assumed by many Christian missionaries is a disservice to the gospel and not part of the good news. Have we perhaps spoilt the Good Story in the telling?

At the beginning of the twentieth century, some mission-minded Christians started a periodical and called it “The Christian Century.” That title was an expression of their triumphalistic belief that by the end of the century the whole world would have been Christianized. Today we have hopefully grown wiser and humbler as we realize that in the 20th century, not only did we fail to Christianize the whole world, but rather that we added two world wars to our record of “accomplishments.”

The spreading of the Good News to all nations is not a goal that can be attained by dint of human might and craft. That is why Jesus promises to empower his messengers from on high by his abiding presence and the Holy Spirit. The challenge of sharing the Good News with all humankind should, therefore, begin on our knees as we confess that we have often taken matters into our own selfish human hands and promise to give the Holy Spirit a chance.

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