Jesus’ Ascension gives us the certainty that we will have the same destiny if we follow the commandment He gave us on this day.
Gospel of Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord
15 Jesus said to His disciples: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 These signs will accompany those who believe: in My name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. 18 They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” 19 So then the Lord Jesus, after He spoke to them, was taken up into Heaven and took His seat at the right hand of God. 20 But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs (Mk 16:15-20).
I – The mission of Transmitting the Non-Transmissible…
Pope St. Pius X, even amid the innumerable occupations inherent to his condition as Universal Pastor of the Holy Church, endeavoured to give catechism classes every week, to children from the parishes of Rome who were preparing to receive their First Communion, at which countless faithful also participated. 1 The Pope affirmed something very impressive: in order to give a one-hour catechism class, two hours of study are required. In like manner, a good preacher, entrusted with directing spiritual exercises for a period of five days, needs to dedicate fifteen to organizing them, selecting adequate material, and adapting it to the psychological makeup of the public, to obtain the anticipated fruits. An identical process applies to professors, lecturers, and all those whose mission it is to teach, given that the general principle is invariable: whenever it is our duty to educate others, we need to learn far beyond what we will transmit, and to imbue ourselves with its content.
This is what took place with the Apostles: God called them to be witnesses and transmitters of the Gospel to the whole world, and this demanded that they become profound connoisseurs of everything they had been called to communicate. Nevertheless, what they wrote or said was but a minute percentage of what they had seen and lived.
The fire of the Apostle: fruit of mystical experience
A powerful example of this is the figure of St. Paul. Where did he acquire everything that he declares in his weighty letters? In the first place, he received a grace of conversion—a grace that produces the effects for which it was created (cf. Acts 9:1-19; 22, 4-16; 26, 10-18; Gal 1:13-17). He had set off to apprehend Christians in the region of Damascus when, on the way, Our Lord made him “fall from his horse” and asked: “‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?’ And he said: ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 9:4-6). This is when he was granted the gift of faith, to believe in the voice that spoke to him; otherwise, he would have risen up arrogantly defying God.
From that moment, the Divine Master began to work in the depth of his soul, preparing him to be the transmitter par excellence of the Gospel. The retreat he made in the desert of Arabia (cf. Gal 1:17-18) played a key role in this transformation, for throughout this period, according to private revelations, he enjoyed the company of the God-Man in glorious Body.
Perhaps even more noteworthy was the ecstasy in which St. Paul, being taken up to the third Heaven, “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Cor 12:4). Such privileges allowed him to undertake a more efficacious preaching of the Good News than that of the Twelve (cf. 1 Cor 15:10). We might compare the Apostle’s preaching to the situation of someone going to tell people from a hypothetical underground civilization about what takes place in the light of the sun. In such a case, there would be a certain proportion, perhaps, between one world and the other, but what St. Paul had been shown was so far above anything we know, that he was only able to say: “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor 2:9).
A similar difficulty is faced by those who, gifted with mystical graces which cause them to feel interiorly who God is, do not find adequate terms in the human vocabulary to describe their experience: “Human reason fails before such incomprehensible mysteries, but enlightened hearts feel and experience, already in this life, that ineffable reality which cannot be made to fit into words or concepts, and less still into human classifications. What these souls manage to stammer disconcerts our feeble comprehension: they multiply seemingly exaggerated terms and yet they remain unsatisfied, for they always see that they have fallen short, and that the reality is incomparably greater than anything that can be said.”2
The secret of the profundity of the Pauline writings
The Epistle to the Ephesians—from which the Liturgy extracts a passage for one of the options for the second reading (Eph 1:17-23) —is illustrative in this sense. More than a missive, it is almost a treatise in which St. Paul strives to transmit what was manifested to him regarding Our Lord and the eternal glory reserved for us. His affirmations are ample demonstration that he saw more than what he described: “May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation resulting in the knowledge of Him” (Eph 1:17). St. Paul wishes to instruct about something which so eludes material and immediate human interests, that, without the spirit of God’s wisdom, it cannot be assimilated. In fact, how is it possible to discuss something that no one sees? In what manner can a reality above any human cogitation be pondered? How can one speak about that which depends upon a mystical phenomenon? To understand, a revelation from Heaven is necessary, and it is to this that he refers, as the construction of his sentence in Greek indicates: “the two genitives ‘of wisdom and of revelation’ […], dependent upon the noun ‘spirit’, mutually complement each other and signify, here, an intimate and profound knowledge of God and of His plans for salvation, which, of his own strength, man cannot attain.” 3 This is why he continues, asking of Our Lord that “the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to His call, what are the riches of glory in His inheritance among the holy ones” (Eph 1:18).
Our hope rests upon the power of God
Hope! This theological virtue has us possess, by anticipation, the unimaginable marvels that we will receive in plenitude at the end of this state of trial, and to which the Apostle attests in his letter.
God predestined us to salvation from all eternity and, even before we were created, He had already determined the path of sanctification of each one, anticipating the moment in which we would be born and would begin to follow it. Nourishing our hope amid the sorrows of life, He treats us after the manner of someone who, having fashioned a palace for us in a place of difficult access, leads us to it by a path crossing a dense thicket, filled with formidable brambles and swamps. He is desirous of bringing us as soon as possible to a glade wherefrom He can point out the edifice at a distance, so as to encourage us along the way.
Further on, St. Paul mentions the “surpassing greatness of His power for us who believe, in accord with the exercise of His great might” (Eph 1:19). Indeed, if salvation depended upon our efforts, we would not reach Heaven, as is clear in the episode of the rich man who, when called by Our Lord, refused to abandon everything to follow Him, prompting Jesus to say: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Mk 10:25). The affirmation surprised the Apostles, who “were exceedingly astonished, and said to Him, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God’” (Mk 10:26-27). Yes, thanks to His power, we progress along the ways of perfection and persevere until the end of our earthly pilgrimage. This is the principal reason which ought to encourage us to place all our hope in Him. However, is there any guarantee that such hope will be rewarded?
Jesus’ ascension, source of hope
St. Paul answers this question in the subsequent verses, alluding to the grandiose event commemorated in this Solemnity, “which He worked in Christ, raising Him from the dead and seating Him at His right hand in the Heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph 1:20-21).
With the Ascension, a magnificent mystery of our Faith recalled in an article of the Creed—“He ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father” —Our Lord Jesus Christ, as Man, proceeded to occupy His place at the right hand of the Father, for as God, He was already together with Him from all eternity. 4 Having united Himself to human nature through the Incarnation, He desired that this nature, represented by Him, be introduced into glory. Until that moment, no one had crossed Heaven’s threshold. It was inaccessible to men in consequence of original sin; only God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit and His Angels inhabited it. The souls of the just remained in Limbo awaiting the Redemption. There, they received the beatific vision when they were visited by Our Lord at the moment of His Death. 5 But only when Jesus ascended into Heaven did these elect enter there, 6 filling the empty places left by Lucifer and his accomplices. Preceded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, this multitude of holy souls entered into glory, beginning with St. Joseph, His adoptive father, followed by Adam and Eve, the prophets, patriarchs, martyrs of the Old Law and a host of men and women, constituting “such a numerous people among this justly condemned race, occupying the vacancies left by the [fallen] angels. Thus, this beloved and sovereign City, far from being defrauded in the number of its citizens, rejoices in gathering perhaps an even greater number.”7
Jesus Christ being the “Head over all things to the Church, which is His Body” (Eph 1:22)—as the Apostle declares, with great clarity and theological sense. And since the Body cannot subsist separated from the Head, we, as its members, will likewise enter into the Heavenly Dwelling. 8 His Ascension is, for us, a token that we will follow the same path. On the day of the Final Judgement we will reassume our body in a glorious state and will rise up to Heaven, “to meet the Lord in the air” (I Thes 4:17). The realization of this promise is a matter of time. However, although time exists for us in the present life and gives us the feeling of delay, it ceases after death and, in comparison with eternity, this interval means less than the “blink of an eye.” This destiny should be the cause of gladness and enthusiasm for us, according to the petition of the Collect: “Gladden us with holy joys, almighty God, and make us rejoice with devout thanksgiving, for the Ascension of Christ Your Son is our exaltation and where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope.” 9
II – The Ascension Points to Our End and the Means to Attain It
There are many noteworthy aspects in the rich Liturgy for this Solemnity, but let us focus on some of those which have not been discussed previously. 10 In the section of the Acts of the Apostles chosen for the first reading (Acts 1:1-11), St. Luke, having already narrated the public life of Jesus in his Gospel, turns to chronicling the development of the nascent Church, beginning with a few episodes that occurred during the forty days Our Lord spent on earth after the Resurrection. Of His apparitions, only the narratives of the Evangelists have reached us, including that of St. Luke himself. Nevertheless, these were doubtless not the only apparitions, for it would not be reasonable that He would resurrect with such glory and manifest Himself only the few times recorded in the Gospel.
There are well-known narrations from private revelations—which, although not belonging to the deposit of Faith, can be given credit, for they legitimately illustrate our piety—, such as those of Venerable Sister Mary of Jesus Agreda or of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich. 11 According to the latter, the Divine Master appeared, refulgent and silent, to Simon of Cyrene, who merited this for having helped Him carry the Cross, and to several persons from Bethlehem and Nazareth, with whom He or His Most Holy Mother had been close in some way. Jesus also stayed at length with the Apostles, the disciples, and the Holy Women—who were saddened as they realized the moment of separation was near—to transmit the last teachings before departing.
According to St. Luke, some Apostles asked if the time had come for the restoration of the kingdom of Israel (cf. Acts 1:6). Although they were witnesses of such a portentous miracle as that of the Resurrection, they persisted in a political and naturalistic vision of Our Lord, wanting to know if, finally, they would see the conquest of supremacy for the Jewish people over all others. Jesus responded: “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:7-8). Then, He rose up before their eyes, doubtless enveloped in an extraordinary light.
After the Ascension
Let us imagine the joy in Heaven, the great homage of the Most Holy Trinity to the Christ-Man and to all of the just of the Old Testament who, by the infinite merits of the Passion, entered the Celestial Homeland. While the angelic cohorts were filled with jubilation, intoning chants, the disciples on earth kept their gaze fixed on that diminishing point, until a cloud covered Our Lord (cf. Acts 1:9). Two Angels then emerged, couriers of a message: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into Heaven? This Jesus, Who was taken up from you into Heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into Heaven” (Acts 1:11).
The promise—“will come” —perhaps gave them the idea that the return would be the next day or a week later. However, nearly two thousand years have passed since Jesus Christ rose, covered with glory, and He has not yet returned… St. Augustine explains how this will come about, on the day of Judgement: “‘This Jesus will come in the same way as you saw Him go into Heaven.’ What does this will come in the same way signify? That He will be Judge in the same manner in which He was judged. Visible not only for the just, but also for the perverse, He will be seen by both the good and the wicked. The wicked will be able to see Him, but they will not be able to reign with Him.” 12 From this perspective, we must have our attention centred on the final events of our life—death, judgement, hell or Paradise—, in accordance with the counsel of Sirach: “In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin” (7:36).
If today we were to receive the news that we must travel to some distant country within a month, we would begin to organize our departure, making preparations regarding clothing, medications, money and documents… However, the journey we are bound to make is longer; one from which we will never return! Therefore, it is indispensable to adequately prepare for it. It is senseless for us to concern ourselves only with concrete problems which end with this life and not to interest ourselves in obtaining a good place in the next. It is only normal that someone setting out on a voyage would wish to know at what hotel he will stay. Let us remember, moreover, that there is an eternal abode called hell, much more uncomfortable than any terrible situation we may experience on earth. Thus, as we contemplate Jesus’ Ascension, we should broaden our horizons and seek to merit a joyful eternity, as Pope Benedict XVI urges: “Vigilance is demanded of all Christians as the basic attitude for the ‘interim time’. This vigilance means, on the one hand, that man does not lock himself into the here and now and concern himself only with tangible things, but that he raises his eyes above the present moment and its immediate urgency.” 13 Accordingly, let us open our soul to the final teachings of the Son of God registered by St. Mark and chosen for today’s Liturgy.
What does it mean to evangelize?
15b “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature!”
What do we understand by “proclaim the Gospel”? We know that Our Lord Jesus Christ left nothing written, not even a note, when He could have composed texts of extraordinary value. What would the work of a Dante Alighieri, a Camões or a Calderón de la Barca amount to next to His divine literature? In the Gospels it is recorded that He only wrote once, upon the ground (cf. Jn 8:6,8), for one of His objectives was to construct a masterpiece and, what is far more than any book, to have models, human figures who could carry out direct action, person to person. This is what He did: He founded the Church, an immortal institution which is based much more upon personal apostolate and action of presence than on intellectual production. Doctrine is important, but, in itself, it is insufficient to convert souls, because “the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3-6). Consequently, doctrine needs to be spread throughout “the whole world,” in the form of the Gospel, that is, principles made life.
Moreover, St. Mark is the only one of the Evangelists to affirm that Our Lord’s mandate was to bring the Good News “to every creature,” thereby involving not only men, but also minerals, plants, animals and even the Angels. At first sight, we would judge the Gospel to be destined only for human beings, for how can it be preached, for example, to a lattice, to a panorama or to a flock of birds? The universality of this proclamation stems from the fact that everything was conceived in light of the God-Man. The Word is the efficient cause and the final cause of all creation (cf. Col 1, 16-17). From Him comes His handiwork, and to Him it must return. Accordingly, the purpose of our active works, as baptized persons, should be to ordain all things with Him as their centre. To preach the Gospel to a lattice, then, implies making it beautiful as well as functional, so that it may give glory to God by the very fact that it exists. Beauty is one of the most salient and penetrating reflections of God’s existence; whoever contemplates something splendid is easily drawn up to Him. To convey the Gospel to all creatures, it is necessary to embrace the via pulchritudinis, one of the most efficacious methods of propagating the marvels brought to the world by Christ. This includes the sacralization of one’s gestures, one’s way of being or of performing any task, from cultivating the earth so as to obtain fruits that are pleasing to the eye, to erecting buildings in accordance with the parameters inspired by the Gospel. It is, in sum, to endeavour to transform the earth into a veritable Paradise.
Called to be role models for our neighbour
The Solemnity of the Ascension sets us before the responsibility we received on the day of our Baptism: that of being true apostles. Indeed, we are not creatures independent of the order of the universe, but rather, “we have become a spectacle to the world, to Angels and to men” (1 Cor 4:9). We live in society, in constant interaction with other people, with family and friends, in the workplace and wherever we go. For this reason, whether in the home or within a religious community, we are accompanied by the very serious, sublime and grandiose mission of being role models for others. Everyone is called to represent some aspect of God that does not fall to any other creature, whether angelic or human, to represent. To preach the Gospel is not merely to teach, it is also to set a good example, which is far more eloquent than words. In religious life or within the bosom of the family, everyone should seek to overcome their evil inclinations and to edify their neighbour, seeking their sanctification.
Thus, as St. Paul wished to awaken in the Ephesians the hope of one day attaining glory, the Church, through the Liturgy, wants us to feel deep in our soul what God has prepared for us to enjoy throughout eternity, won by Our Lord Jesus Christ on the day of the Ascension. Of what use is earthly worrying over fleeting things? Of what use is it to relish the pleasures that the world can offer—accumulating honours, applause, benefits—only to leave everything behind when the hour of departure comes, and present ourselves empty-handed before God? Let us take advantage of this Solemnity to make the firm resolution to abandon any and all attachment to sin that distances us from our objective and robs us of “the hope to which He has called you, […] the riches of His glorious inheritance in the Saints” (Eph 1:18). In this regard, it is fitting to recall the counsel of St. Augustine: “Reflect upon Christ seated at the right hand of the Father; reflect that He will come to judge the living and the dead. This is what faith tells us; faith is grounded in the mind, faith is in the foundations of the heart. Look at Him Who died for you; look at Him when He ascends, and love Him when He suffers. Look at Him ascending and embrace Him in His death. You have a guarantee of this great promise made by Christ: what today He accomplished—His Ascension—is a promise for you. We should have the hope that we will resurrect and rise up to the Kingdom of God, there to be with Him forever, in an unending life, rejoicing without a hint of sadness and living without any infirmity.” 14
May faith and hope nourish our soul along the arduous path which today’s Christian must follow, and with this flame ever alight we will confront all adversities. The mandate to evangelize invites us to ascend mystically with Our Lord to the Eternal Homeland, where we will go, body and soul, after the resurrection. Let us beseech through Mary Most Holy, who was assumed into Heaven, that we be conducted there, jubilantly celebrating this mystery. ◊