Now you will be my witnesses
(Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23; Mark 16:15-20)
Introduction to Mass
Jesus’ Ascension, his departure from the disciples and his return to the company of God the Father, brought his mission on earth to a close. The followers of Jesus realise that they have been chosen, as other individuals were in the past, to cooperate with God in his plan for humanity. They must now prepare themselves to proclaim the Good News of salvation “to all creation”.
In the second reading today St. Paul prays that the people he’s writing to will look at all God’s activities in a spirit of “wisdom and perception”, because that’s the only way that they’ll ever come to a full knowledge of him.
And I think we certainly have to look at the event of Jesus’ Ascension with a sort of spiritual perceptiveness so as to understand what it really signifies and what its purpose was. For one thing, different authors of the New Testament have different versions of what exactly happened at the Ascension, so that in some ways we’ll never know with complete accuracy what the disciples actually experienced on that occasion.
That means we’ve got to concentrate on what the event signified in terms of Jesus’ whole mission and God’s whole plan of salvation.
In the first reading the disciples seem impatient for God to intervene in history and bring all his plans to fulfilment. They even still seem to think of the coming of God’s Kingdom in terms of great worldly strength and glory.
Jesus tells them, in not so many words, that that’s not what’s going to happen, that’s not God’s character and in particular that’s not what God has in store for them.
“Not many days from now,” he tells them, you’ll be baptised with the Holy Spirit. When that happens, “then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem…but to the ends of the earth”.
So God’s Kingdom won’t be spread by force - it’ll be spread by proclamation, by the power of the disciples’ witness and by inviting people to conversion. It won’t be established suddenly by some great act of conquest - it’ll be spread patiently, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, gradually drawing people under the influence of God’s holiness. This is a mission that will last centuries.
Jesus’ final instructions to the disciples, his departure from them and his promise of “baptism in the Holy Spirit” to inspire and strengthen them for the work that lies ahead shows that God means to work through them the way he’s always worked.
God never reveals himself or makes contact with us directly and obviously. He always chooses to work through particular individuals, and they then have the job of testifying about his presence and influence to others.
At the time of the escape from slavery in Egypt, for example, God didn’t reveal himself in an obvious, direct way to everyone. He called Moses and gave him the job of leading the Hebrew people out of slavery. Later, to give another example, he called the Old Testament prophets and spoke to them through their solitary prayer and contemplation, and they then had to pass on what they had learned about him in their preaching.
And this is also how he acted when it came to the closing phase of Jesus’ mission. Christ didn’t make his Resurrection obvious by appearing to everyone – he appeared secretly to the disciples, who then had to testify to others. It’s that job of testifying to their experience of God’s activity that Jesus gives to the disciples in the first reading and the gospel today.
So I would see that as being part of the meaning of Jesus’ Ascension and the answer to the question why Jesus didn’t remain on earth for a lot longer after his Resurrection or show himself to a lot more people.
God always prefers to work with us and through us rather than on his own. He always prefers to be active in a hidden and subtle way, so that if we believe in him it’s a matter of faith and not necessity – something we’ve got to accept because the evidence is so clear. St. Thomas was the one who refused to believe in Christ’s resurrection till he had definite proof, but we’re the ones Jesus told him about when he said, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet still believe”.
That’s the sort of reflection I’d suggest we make to try to make sense of this event in between the Resurrection and Pentecost, which we commemorate as the feast of Jesus’ Ascension.