As we all know, the season of Lent is a period of 40 days which recalls, among other things, the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert in preparation for his public ministry. At the end of those 40 days in the desert, he went to the Jordan River where he was baptized by John the Baptist. And the 40 days of Lent lead up to the celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead on Easter, which we celebrate in a particular way not just on a single day, but throughout this whole season of Easter.
As Luke tells us in our first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus remained on earth for 40 days after his resurrection, appearing to his disciples, eating meals with them, and above all “speaking to them about the Kingdom of God.” And then at the end of those 40 days, he departed from them, ascending into heaven. And the feast of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven is what we celebrate today.
The forty days that Jesus spent with his disciples, then, recall his own 40 days of preparation in the desert. Of course, the time Jesus spent in the desert before he began his public ministry were difficult ones because he engaged in a strict fast and was strongly tempted by the devil. By contrast, the 40 days Jesus spent with his disciples after his resurrection were a time of great joy: it was not a time of fasting and deprivation but no doubt a time of celebration. Nevertheless, this was a time of preparation for the disciples: Jesus was using this time to prepare them, and most especially his apostles, for his departure, and for the mission that he was entrusting to them.
Jesus was preparing them because he would soon be ascending into heaven. And when this happened, the age of the Church began. Once Jesus ascended into heaven, a new era was begun here on earth. What Jesus had begun in his ministry here on earth would now be carried on by the Church that he had established. Whereas it was Jesus himself during his life here on earth who traveled around Galilee and Judea, proclaiming the Gospel, healing the sick, and casting out demons, after his ascension into heaven, it would be the responsibility of his Church to do what he did and carry on his mission. Or rather, Jesus would continue to carry on his mission here on earth, but acting through his Church. I think it was St. Teresa of Avila who has said that now it is we who act as Jesus’ hands and feet here on earth.
So this is what Jesus was preparing his disciples for: to carry on his work. And he shared with them what their mission was to be: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” He is instructing them to be witnesses of everything that they have seen and heard from him, and to proclaim this to the whole world.
Our first reading comes from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, which was written by Luke the Evangelist, who had also written the Gospel of Luke. So the Acts of the Apostles is in a sense part two of the story that had begun in Luke’s Gospel, or one could say that the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles together form one longer book, the first half of which recounts the life of Christ, and the second half of which recounts the beginning of the early Church. And the life of Christ is mirrored in the life of the early Church: both had the 40-day period of preparation, after which Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. The Church, for her part, was baptized in the Spirit, as Jesus had promised, when the Holy Spirit descended upon his disciples at Pentecost which we will celebrate next Sunday. After his baptism, Jesus began his public ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. The first words of his ministry as recorded in Mark’s Gospel were, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” And in his final words to his apostles in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus said that “repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations.” And after they were baptized in the Spirit at Pentecost, they began to fulfill his instruction to them, going out first into the streets of Jerusalem, and then to the surrounding region, but then even beyond, preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
By the end of the Acts of the Apostles, we hear how Christian communities have sprung up throughout the eastern Mediterranean region, even down to Ethiopia, and to Rome. And just as Jesus faced persecution in his lifetime, so too did the Church. Paul of course went to Rome because he had been arrested for his evangelizing activity and so went to Rome to defend himself as a Roman citizen before the emperor. And this is where the Acts of the Apostles somewhat abruptly ends. We do not hear how in Acts how Paul’s case before the emperor went, but the constant tradition of the Church since then has been that he ended up being martyred for his faith in Christ shortly after. But by that point, the Church had already been established in Rome. And while the Roman Empire is now long gone, long since consigned to the pages of history, the Church herself remains.
So the chief responsibility of the Church is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection and his message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins: that because Jesus, the Son of God, suffered and died for us, our sins can and will be forgiven if we repent. However, more about that next week!
But going back to what we celebrate today: Jesus’ ascension into heaven. My initial feeling is that Jesus’ disciples would have been very sad. He had died, which was a devastating blow for them, but then three days later he was alive again and they were reunited with him! But then forty days later he leaves them again, and this time for good. However, our readings tell us that afterwards, rather than being sad, they returned rejoicing to Jerusalem. Even though Jesus had departed from them, he didn’t die – death no longer had any power of him, and instead they watched him go in glory. They saw him rise into the heavens until he was hidden by a cloud. This recalls the cloud that came down from heaven when Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor – the presence of God of the Father. The apostles were filled with awe at this manifestation of the Divine.
And further, Jesus had already made some important promises to them: one was that where he was going, they would one day follow. That he had to go to prepare a place for them in heaven. Two, that he would be with them always, even until the end of the world. And indeed he is, in prayer, in the Church, when two or more are gathered in his name, and most especially, in the Eucharist, which we find in every tabernacle in every Catholic (and Orthodox) church throughout the world. Three, that he would send his Holy Spirit upon them, to give them the grace and the strength they would need to fulfill his will for them and to carry on his mission.
So Jesus remains no longer here on earth as a human being as before. He reigns now in glory in heaven and for that reason we rejoice. And he remains with us, yet in a different way. And we also rejoice because of the promises that He has made to us: that where he has gone, we will one day follow, as long as we continue to seek forgiveness for our sins and strive to follow him every day that is left to us here on earth. We rejoice because of the hope that Jesus’ ascension into heaven gives us.