“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick and they will recover.’ So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God. But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.” (Mark 16:15-20)
The effects of the great event of the Ascension, which we celebrate this Sunday, are clearly expressed in today’s gospel reading and readings from other New Testament books that describe it. None of those effects is negative as one might suspect, after all it seems that to the undiscerning eye that Jesus is leaving them and going far, far away. No, the effects, to mention only three, were extraordinarily positive: hope, a desire to worship, and power for ministry.
First the disciples were filled with hope. In the Ascension Christ ascends fully into God’s kingdom, into His way of being; His earthly life is taken up into heaven. In that moment the disciples are to realize that if He has done it, so to shall they. That is what he said in John: “I go to prepare a place for you. And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself that where I am, there you may be also”(John 14) Imagine the scene happening before your very eyes, Christ physically rising before you and disappearing into heaven. I cannot help but think that a person of faith would not watch him do so without some sense of longing and envy to do the same. But that is exactly the point: He who was raised to glory is but the “first fruits” of all who will follow Him. The fact that he ascended guarantees we will as well.
Second, the disciples were inspired to worship. Luke tells us that after the Ascension “they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:52-53) And, from the very first, the worship it inspired has been an anticipation of the worship in which we shall all participate in heaven. Father Robert Barron explains:
“The Ascension awakens within us this liturgical desire. The mass is not the celebration of ourselves, it is the participation now in the heavenly life. At the beginning of the mass, when we bless ourselves, we are situating our lives in the dimension of the Trinity. We are straining upward, hoping, looking for a participation in God’s life… anticipating the eschatological banquet, when we, with all the saints and angels worship around the throne of God.”(Homily, May 23, 2004)
Finally, in the Ascension the disciples found power for ministry. In today’s passage just before the Ascension, the disciples are given the Great Commission: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” They are also given the promise of power, remarkable signs that would accompany them wherever they went. The Ignatius Study Bible says that “Although these signs are not ends in themselves, they can be motives of credibility that lead unbelievers to embrace the gospel and likewise lead believers to see the reasonableness of their faith” (Ignatius Study Mk 16:17-18).
Those signs were theirs because the Lord would still be with them. His Ascension did not mean his absence but rather, because he was now with and in God, He is present with them in the way only God can be –in them always and everywhere. Look again at the last words of the passage. This is no absent Jesus: “But they went forth and preached, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.”
It is clear from the readings that the disciples’ experience of the Ascension left them, as an old saying goes,”with their eyes on heaven and both feet planted firmly on the ground.” It may be a paradox but, as Father Barron says: “The more you are straining toward heaven…the more you are dedicated to this world and its concerns , its struggles and its sorrows.” That is so because the one who is leading us to heaven is the one who is also focusing our attention on earth.
The Ascension of Christ, as seen in the Gospel is a sign of hope: the hope that a man, by his faith and works may one day join “the eschatological banquet”, as Fr. Barron calls it. We are witnesses not only to something entirely unique and beautiful and divine, but in many ways truly attainable. Notice the very last words of this week’s Gospel: “And they went forth and preached everywhere while the Lord works with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. Amen” (Mk 16: 19-20). When we respond to this hope by evangelizing, Christ will work with us and confirm his own message. We are messengers called to bring the hope of this Ascension into the lives of others. As Christ “left” the world to Ascend into the fullness of God’s heavenly body, we should take joy and celebrate the hope of doing so ourselves!
Logan Amster is a Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.