Where Christ has gone, we hope to follow
(Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20)
Introduction to Mass
Jesus' Ascension was the end of his ministry on earth, if we include the period after his resurrection when he was appearing to the apostles. That's the gist of the first reading. His departure also signalled the start of our ministry - the mission of the Church - which is what the gospel reading for today's feast highlights.
In many ways the language in the New Testament, describing Christ's Ascension, is symbolic or even mythological language. I don't mean that the Ascension was made up, or that it never happened, but I do think it would be true to say that to talk about Jesus' departure from the apostles as a rising into the sky and eventually disappearing from sight is to talk in terms of those images in the Bible that imagines heaven, and God, as being above the earth (and the underworld, somewhere below it).
But that's not literally true, and we don't find the meaning of these passages of Scripture by reading them in a literal way. We find the meaning by looking behind the images to what the author is really trying to communicate. And when it comes to the Ascension I'd say there are three things to concentrate on.
One is that, whatever other way we want to try to explain the new form of life, or the new existence, that Jesus had after he rose from the dead, it was, above all, life with God.
All the descriptions in the gospels of what Jesus looked like after his Resurrection try to get over the idea that he had taken on a divine quality, and the gospel accounts of the Ascension are the same - all the images of the mountain, the cloud, the light, the being lifted up are all divine images, images of God. So that's the first and most obvious aspect of the event: Christ's new, risen life is a close, undivided life with God.
The second thing is that we're also set to inherit the same life. Where Christ has gone, says today's Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, we hope to follow. Another prayer for Ascension day puts it another way, by saying that Christ was taken up to heaven to claim for us a share in his divine life. God's life is something that he intends us to share in, in an unqualified way - and the full meaning of that was made clear to the disciples by Jesus' appearances after the Resurrection, and the new form of life that they then witnessed.
And finally, as I tried to say at the start of Mass, the end of Jesus' ministry on earth is the beginning of our ministry, as the community of believers, the Church.
The end of St. Matthew's gospel has Jesus tell the apostles to go and make new disciples, to baptise them and teach them his commandments. They have to go and summon people to live the way of life based on Jesus' preaching during his own ministry. Christ also talks here about the Church having his authority, but as we can see from this passage we just heard, the authority that the gospels talk about isn't a kind of human authority, an authority based on power and backed up by the ability to use force. It's an authority that's conditional on the community itself living the way of the gospel and only on that basis trying to win new members.
So those are the implications, I think, of this event of Jesus' last farewell to the apostles after his rising from the dead. As I say, it's important to understand the symbolic language and images that the gospel-writers used in the way they are supposed to be understood.
We can't read the Bible as if it's a collection of news reports: it's a different kind of knowledge which is being communicated. Jesus' Ascension, which we commemorate today, is one of the many events in the Bible where - behind the images and the metaphors - we do find the truth about the work and the activity that God has carried out for our sake and for our salvation.