Is it possible that the disciples of Jesus are ignorant of his mission to ascend into heaven? We should strive to read the gospels with a fresh heart and mind because it can be easy to gloss over the truly fantastic and even unbelievable things that happened to the apostles over a relatively short period of time. It really is the greatest story ever told! And it’s all true. Come to think of it starting with John the Baptist in the desert crying out, “Make straight His path.” They meet the Lord and come into His presence. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be in the physical presence of Jesus Christ, the long awaited messiah? To actually look into His eyes while conversing? To see Him smile or laugh or pray?
Think about it. Being in the presence of a saint often leaves lasting impressions on those who meet them. Or think about it in the common sense of meeting celebrities; wanting to take a picture with them, having their autograph. People who met Mother Theresa or Pope John Paul II will tell you all about the meeting down to the smallest details. But these are human beings. What must it have been like to be in the presence of God Himself (as close friends no less!) for three years? Put yourself in the shoes of the apostles. They watched Him preach, perform great miracles; calm the sea, cure the sick, multiply food and wine and even raise the dead. He challenged the apostles as no one ever had before.
Then He was arrested, falsely accused, savagely beaten and crucified. No sooner was He killed and buried but then He physically resurrected from the dead, walking around in human form, albeit somehow a different kind of human form. Angels show up at the tomb and announce, “He went to Galilee.” Of course! One minute Jesus is cooking breakfast and eating fish with them, the next He’s walking through walls and locked doors telling Thomas to touch the physical wound in his side. He’s talking with people on the road to Emmaus one minute then He shows up somewhere else. Now they’re watching Him physically ascend into the sky on a cloud, taking His seat at the right hand of God the Father, while angels are asking, “Men of Galilee, why are you looking at the sky,” as if this is an everyday occurrence. Somehow, it is hard to imagine the experience of the apostles. It’s easy today to read the scriptures and see that Jesus ascended into heaven then ask ourselves why were the apostles confused or not understanding this? Just put yourself in their place. This whole adventure with Jesus was truly the most incredible trip of a lifetime. Becoming a saint is never boring.
The ascension of Christ brings to focus what theology describes as the “already but not yet,” which relates directly to the last things. We may also ask, “where can Jesus be found after his ascension into heaven?” The “already but not yet” teaches that believers are actively taking part in the kingdom of God but will only reach the full expression of this kingdom sometime in the future.
Jesus inaugurates the “already” when he tells his disciples that the powers in heaven and on earth have been handed over to him. He takes them into apprenticeship. He teaches them the skills and manner of his works, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well” (Mk. 16: 18-19). They are all witnesses to these things. Jesus commissions them, “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.” God’s kingdom is already among us in Christ who is “head over all things to the Church which is his body” (Eph. 1:23).
However, this kingdom will reach its full expression sometime in the future. We do “not yet” see it in its glory.Jesus’ ascension introduces us into that future kingdom when he says, “'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn. 17:20). We belong to the kingdom of heaven with the Father who cares for us as his creatures. The disciples seem confused at this and they ask, “Lord, are you going at this time to restore the kingdom to Israel?” But Jesus speaks about what is important, “you will receive the Holy Spirit” and “you will be my witnesses.” This is the message of ascension. We are the “Theophilus” (lover of God), enjoined not to stand idle looking upward. We are today’s witnesses to the deeds of Christ. The disciples look into the clouds with several questions go on their minds: Who will fill the gap? What will happen next? Are we really prepared for this task? Hence, the angels urge them, “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
So what does this mean for us? What can we take away from it? We are only passersby on this earth. Life on earth is very short and our true lives begin in eternity. Our true home is in heaven and that is what we should focus on. Jesus ends His physical life on earth just after 33 short years and begins His true life in heaven for all eternity. This is the meaning of our lives too. Heaven is real but hell is also real and we can go there by the choices we make and it’s forever. The most important thing we must be doing now is living lives worthy of the kingdom of God because nothing is more important than our eternal lives and we must choose wisely.
The troubles of COVID are a big lesson and might only be the beginning of trials to come. So what can we do? God has placed us on earth at this exact moment in time to fulfil His purpose for our lives. Each one of us has a specific role to play at this moment in history. A person would have to be blind not to see that things are going very awry in the world. It’s grown dark and cold. We are called to be the light of peace in the impending darkness of the world. And the only way to find this peace is by a deep abiding relationship with God. In prayer, God answers the questions of our heart. In prayer, God consoles us in times of trial. In prayer, we find inner peace. In prayer, we are not afraid. We must spend time every day in prayer, going to mass weekly and even add an extra day or two each week, attending to the sacraments, asking for forgiveness, and even fasting for the sake of our future lives which is eternity.
Possibly, some of us ask similar questions from their personal experiences today. Where is Jesus in our crazy world? Where is Jesus when things go wrong in my life? Where is he when sickness, anxiety, loss, grief, and sorrow overwhelm me? Where is Jesus when my loved one suffers cancer or is terminally ill taking up everything I have worked for, and still die? Where is Jesus when Christians are persecuted at different parts of the world? Where is Jesus when my marriage is crashing? Where is Jesus when addiction tears my family apart? The disciples asked similar questions at his death, the reason why they are startled at his ascension. Where is Jesus when he died? Where is he during those three days in the tomb? Where is Jesus when Mary Magdalene could not find him? The gospel says, “When they saw him, they worshipped, but they doubted” (Matt. 28:17). The apostles doubted his presence in Galilee. But their hesitation did not take away the presence of Jesus. But is Jesus away really? He was there and he is still here. The answer is in the “not-yet,” the eternity of our lives.
The reality is that Jesus is present not because of how we feel or not feel, but because he is God. Jesus is present as God. Jesus is present in our hearts. He is present in our homes. He is present in our relationships. Jesus is profoundly present in the Blessed Eucharist which commissions us as witnesses. Jesus is with us always, yes, “until the end of the ages.” So, are you missing that connection between your faith and discipleship? Jesus’ ascension invites you to proclaim the gospel to every creature.
When you ask God for forgiveness. When you forgive. When you identify with the needs of the poor and the hungry. When you give a cup of water to the thirsty. When you speak kindly to those who expect you to retaliate. When you hold back your anger and act with love. That is what discipleship means. Those are the moments you live out your eternity. Let us continue to bring Christ into the world that is desperate to have him. Let us show by our actions that Christ is not missing and that he is not idle in our lives. His ascension prepares us for our ascension at the end of time.