The Easter flowers in the church have performed remarkably well. It’s been seven weeks, and they’re still in bloom. The poor things have endured real hardship. We decorated the church with them on Holy Thursday for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. We banished them to a closed room on Good Friday for the Commemoration of the Passion. They were dragged out here again for the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, and they’ve sat in their places ever since.
It’s impressive that all the moving in and out and back again didn’t damage them. If plants could reason, our Easter flowers might sympathize with the apostles. Jesus had spent time with the apostles during his ministry. He was taken from them by death, but appeared to them after his Resurrection. Then, he was taken from them again on the day of the Ascension. I wonder if they just wished he would make up his mind: either stay or leave.
It seems, however, that he didn’t choose either; rather, he seems to have chosen a little of both. Just before he was taken from their sight he said, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) Is this indecision? Or, is it something else? I’m certain that the apostles would have been completely satisfied if Jesus had remained with them, in either an earthly or a resurrected life, for an indefinite period of time. I’m certain that they would have preferred to remain at his feet, listening to his words. It seems that God had different plans in mind.
This event of Jesus’ Ascension to heaven falls into the same class of things the Church celebrates during the three days of Easter. The Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are separated from one another for the purpose of worship and prayer, but they are not discrete events. Each event presents to us a slightly different perspective on Jesus’ identity and mission; we celebrate them separately in order to gain the fullest possible understanding of who Jesus is and how he redeemed us from our sins. In a like manner, the Ascension is not an event distinct from the Resurrection; it is a further perspective on the mystery of Jesus’ identity and his relationship to the Father.
We celebrate the three days of Easter, not to differentiate the saving events from one another, but in order that we might enter into those events. Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday are opportunities for us to place ourselves with Jesus, and to experience those events as if for the first time. Ascension also invites us to be participants in the saving mysteries rather than mere spectators. This, I think, was the Lord’s intent behind accompanying his return to the Father with a promise to be with his followers “until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
The Scriptures make it clear that the Ascension was intended by God to be a turning point in the life of the first generation of believers in just the same way that Jesus’ temptation in the desert was a turning point in Jesus’ life. Jesus spent forty days in fasting and prayer before beginning his public ministry. During that time he was tempted by the devil; he was offered dominion over all the earth if he would bow down in worship of the devil’s power. At the end of those forty days he was prepared to begin preaching about God’s kingdom.
The beginning of the apostles’ ministry is a reflection of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The apostles had their faith strengthened for forty days by the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus. At the end of that time they were able to understand and proclaim that “all power in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18), had been given to Jesus because of his obedience to God. Now that power would be poured out on the apostles because of the obedience of their faith. Jesus’ physical absence from the apostles was the necessary ‘desert fast’ that would lead to their public ministry.
The feast of the Ascension is an opportunity for us to enter, communally and personally, into the mission of the apostles. Jesus’ final instruction to his apostles was to reiterate the central theme of his public ministry. Giving witness to God’s power was central to the mission of Jesus and, as a consequence, must be central to the lives of his followers. For us, the current generation of believers, giving witness to God’s power at work in the world is not ancillary to faith; it is essential.
If the apostles had been satisfied to be passive spectators to God’s saving actions, they would never have preached about the Resurrection. If they had never preached the Gospel, we would never have heard the Good News of salvation. Now, the responsibility to proclaim the Gospel falls to us. It is insufficient for us to be passive recipients of the faith of previous generations of believers. Unlike these Easter flowers, our purpose in church today is not decorative; having accepted the Faith, we are obliged to share it with those around us.
It might be tempting to take refuge in the thought that because we lead decent lives, and haven’t done anything really bad, we are good enough to be spared a harsh judgment on the day of the Lord’s return. It is however, insufficient to claim that we have done nothing worthy of condemnation. God desires that we not only avoid what is contemptible, but that we actually do what is laudable, specifically, that we participate in the mission of Jesus’ apostles. Jesus is physically absent from his Church for this particular reason: that we mature in our faith, and give witness to his Resurrection. He remains present to us, though physically absent, when we are his witnesses to all the world.