‘As he said this, he was lifted up while they looked on, and a cloud took him from their sight.” The Acts of Apostles, which records the establishment and growth of the early Church, begins with the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. This, in itself, was the surest indication that those first believers, far from regarding the Ascension as an ending, regarded it as a glorious beginning.
We generally experience the departure of those we love as an ending, especially when their departing has left a painful void. Describing the Ascension in the Acts of the Apostles, St Luke shows Jesus preparing his disciples for the Ascension. Far from preparing his disciples for an absence, Jesus prepared them for the next, and yet more wonderful, expression of his presence. The Ascension would be the beginning of everything that Jesus had been working towards. “It is what you have heard me speak about: John baptised with water, but you, not many days from now, will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus went on to explain exactly what he meant by this baptism with the Holy Spirit. Far from experiencing the Ascension as the end of a life shared with Jesus, they would come to know the presence of Jesus as the Holy Spirit poured into their hearts. Far from facing a mission without Jesus, he would continue to live in them through the Holy Spirit. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem, but throughout Judea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth.”
Relating the Ascension at the end of his Gospel, St Matthew stresses the same continuity of Christ’s presence. Jesus commissioned the Apostles to make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This was not to be a mission without Jesus. It would become possible only because he would continue to be with them. His living presence would accompany their every undertaking. “Know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.”
No less than the Apostles, we share in this new beginning heralded by the Ascension. We look to the future with confidence, not because of ourselves, but because of what we have already received from the Lord. Already we have received his Holy Spirit. In Word, sacrament and prayer, Jesus continues to be with us always, to the end of time. It is in this conviction that Pope Francis invites us to live as a missionary people, carrying the name of Jesus to the ends of the earth.
It is, to say the least, somewhat daunting to be described as a missionary people. How could we possibly recapture the force and vigour of that first apostolic preaching?
St Paul typically described himself as “Paul, called to be an Apostle”. We share his calling, a calling whose riches are unfolded in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. “May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and perception of what is revealed, to bring you to full knowledge of him. May he enlighten the eyes of your mind so that you can see what hope his call holds for you, and how infinitely great is the power that he has exercised in us believers.”
We whose lives seem so ordinary are the believers in whose hearts this mystery continues to unfold. The Ascension marks our new beginning in Christ, and enables us to reach out to the whole world.