Today we celebrate the solemnity of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, and we hear in our readings two different accounts, both written by the evangelist Luke. One of these accounts is from Luke’s Gospel and the other from the Acts of the Apostles, which is essentially a sequel to Luke’s Gospel. There are striking parallels between these two books which help to reveal the meaning of Jesus’ Ascension. The life of Jesus as presented in the Gospels is mirrored in the life of the Church as presented in the Acts of the Apostles.
First of all, the Gospel of Luke is of course the story of Jesus Christ, incarnate as a human being, living among us on this earth, preaching, teaching, healing the sick, raising the dead, and then suffering, dying on the Cross, and rising from the dead. With his ascension into heaven, this mode of Jesus’ presence on earth comes to an end. And his final action before ascending into heaven is to commission his apostles to spread the gospel of repentance and the forgiveness of sin to all nations. Jesus’ ministry, as he himself had stated, was to the Jews. But he commissioned his apostles to go out to the whole world preaching the good news of salvation.
The Acts of the Apostles, then, gives us the story of the Church, as she begins to fulfill Jesus’ mandate to go out to the world. And a new mode of Jesus’ presence on earth begins: the Church which Jesus established. So, just as Luke begins with the announcement of Jesus’ coming and of his birth, Acts begins with the announcement and the birth of the Church. Just as the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan, so too did the Holy Spirit descend upon the disciples gathered together in the Upper Room in Jerusalem where the Last Supper took place. Just as Jesus spent forty days in the desert preparing for his public ministry, so too did he spend forty days with his disciples after his resurrection, preparing them for their public ministry, teaching them how the whole of the Scriptures proclaimed his coming and revealed God’s plan of salvation for the world. Just as Jesus proclaimed the Gospel message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, so too did the apostles. Just as Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead, so too did the apostles. And of course, the Gospel of Luke leads to Jesus’ imprisonment and death in Jerusalem. Acts leads to Paul’s own imprisonment which necessitates his journey to Rome to argue his case before the emperor. And that is where the Acts of the Apostles concludes. It is believed that Luke wrote both his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles around 60-62 A.D., shortly before the emperor Nero’s persecution of the Christians, during which both Peter and Paul, the main figures in Acts, were put to death.
So today we celebrate Jesus’ glorious ascension into heaven where he now reigns in glory. And though he is no longer present here on earth as a human being, he is still present and active in his Church. This is now the age of the Church, when she has been given the mission to continue the work that Jesus began. This is the commission he gave to the apostles, and it is the commission he gives to us – to each one of us.
And the primary emphasis of this mission, according to Jesus himself, is to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Everything else is subordinate to that principal message, and should flow from that message. And both repentance and forgiveness of sins go together – it’s not possible to have one without the other. God forgives us, he is always willing to forgive us, but we have to first recognize our need for his forgiveness, and then we have to accept it. He does not force it upon us. Preaching repentance is not easy, because repentance involves taking a hard look at oneself, letting Christ shine his light on all the dark corners of our lives. It involves taking responsibility for oneself and one’s own actions, and letting go of the all-too-human tendency to blame others. And then comes the promise of forgiveness.
And this mission has been given to all of us, to be exercised in different ways, according to God’s will for us, and according to our state in life. So, yes, God is calling men to the priesthood to spread the Gospel. He is calling men and women to the religious life to spread the Gospel. He is calling some lay people to spread the Gospel in specific service to the Church. But that represents a tiny fraction of the whole Church. The vast majority of Christians are called to carry on Jesus’ work in the world as members of the laity, living in the world but not of the world, evangelizing the people God puts into your lives in the day-to-day reality of your lives. He is calling you to evangelize your families, your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers. He is calling you to evangelize in the fields of education, health care, politics (yes, that one needs a lot of evangelization). He is calling you to evangelize in the office, in the factory, in the field.
So how are we to do it? Here’s an example. I had a funeral once for a woman who was a mother and a grandmother to many. In fact, even people who were her nieces and nephews or great-nieces and great-nephews called her grandma. At the luncheon I heard testimonies from many people about the impact she had had on their lives and on their faith. She spent two hours every night doing her “oracion” – her prayers for a long list of people. She did not hesitate to talk to her children and grandchildren and others about Jesus and about the importance of praying to him and trusting in him. Through her words and her example, she led others to Christ. One of her grandsons who used to doubt the faith would talk to her about his doubts. She would listen to him and encourage him, and eventually, through her example, he began to follow Christ. I heard a story about a couple who had been trying to have a child. They asked the woman to pray for them over a period of several years. The day after her death, they learned that they were expecting. How many mothers and grandmothers have been responsible for passing on the faith to future generations! How many conversions and how many miracles have been brought about through their prayers! Where would the world be without their prayers?
This is what we are all called to do. We are living in the age of the Church, and that means that Jesus has given each of us a mission to preach the Gospel, to be exercised in different ways. But the goal is the same: to lead others to Christ. But we cannot give what we do not have, and so we also have the responsibility to grow in our faith, to learn more about our faith, to grow closer to Jesus Christ every day. No one is exempt! But it is not just our responsibility, it is also our privilege, to carry on Christ’s work in the world.