On the Gospel of Mark 16:15-20
In case you didn’t realise, the Church is still celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ! As Catholics we like to fast and feast – we fast for forty days during Lent, but we feast for fifty days, from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday! Ascension Sunday marks a high point in this season, when we celebrate Jesus’ return to the Father, but it’s a feast that’s often poorly understood.
Sometimes we think of the Ascension as Jesus going back to heaven for a well-earned rest, his saving work accomplished. It is true that the Ascension marks a fulfilment – ‘there at the right hand of God he took his place’ – but this fulfilment is in no way a sort of ‘spiritual unemployment’ (to use the words of Gregory Collins OSB). Pay attention to the words of the Gospel: ‘[the apostles], going out, preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word by the signs that accompanied it’. The ascended Lord is a co-operator with the missionary work of the apostles, not merely a heavenly spectator.
How does he support the apostles? He sends them the promised Spirit: ‘now I am sending down to you what the Father has promised’ (Lk 24:49). This Spirit, which will clothe them with power in spectacular style at Pentecost, will give the apostles ‘power… and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem, but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). The ascension, then, is not an end, but a beginning, a sending forth: ‘Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation’.
The empowering Spirit is still sent down to us today, our ascended Lord is still sending us out to proclaim the Good News, but there is another way in which the mystery of the Ascension is relevant to us today. In many ancient religions, God or the gods were seen as distant figures, with little compassion for humans. These deities were awe-inspiring figures, inspiring fear and demanding propitiatory sacrifice. When the true God revealed himself to Israel, he did indeed show himself to be awe-inspiring (‘For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome’, Deut 10:17), but also to be compassionate and loving, a God who is on our side (‘Our God is a God who saves’, Ps 68:20). This revelation of compassion reached a new level in Christ. In the Incarnation, the unthinkable happened: God became man, the Word became flesh, divinity stooped down to humanity. This downward movement of God towards us is what we celebrate at Christmas, and what a wonderful mystery it is. But it has a sequel: the Ascension. In the Incarnation, the Son of God came down to our level by taking on flesh, but in the Ascension he draws humanity up towards divinity.
‘In the sight of the vast company of the blessed, human nature was exalted above the dignity of all the creatures of heaven, passing beyond the ranks of the angels, being raised above the high seat of the archangels, to receive an elevation that would have no limit until it was admitted into the eternal Father’s dwelling, to share the glorious throne of him with whose nature it had been united in the person of the Son’ (Pope St Leo the Great). But this ascension was not meant to be a once-off – it is meant to mark out our journey too. St Paul describes the risen and ascended Christ as the ‘first fruits’ of a great harvest: we are called to be part of this harvest, following Christ on the path home to glory.
On this great feast, then, let us recall ‘what hope his call holds for us, what rich glories he has promised the saints will inherit and how infinitely great is the power that he has exercised for us believers’ (Eph 1:18-19).
Jesus showed himself to the Eleven and said to them, “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation. He who believes and is baptised will be saved; he who does not believe will be condemned. These are the signs that will be associated with believers: in my name they will cast out devils; they will have the gift of tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and be unharmed should they drink poison; they will lay their hands on the sick, who will recover.” And so the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven: there at the right hand of God he took his place, while they, going out, preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word by the signs that accompanied it.
– Mk 16:15-20