So what do we do now?

Ascension Sunday

Christ's Ascension by Fresken von Gebhard Fugel, 1893-1894.Where are we now in the Easter season? Let’s recap. Jesus resurrects and first appeared to his disciples on Easter Sunday. And for forty days, he is with them off and on, appearing and disappearing, teaching them about the Kingdom of God and preparing them for their important work ahead: that of sharing the Good News and shepherding his Church. On the last of those forty days, Jesus ascends to his Father in heaven. And for the next nine days, his disciples (as per Christ’s instructions) remain in Jerusalem praying for and awaiting the promise of the Father about which they had heard Jesus speak. Finally, on the fiftieth day, on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the disciples are intensely filled with the Holy Spirit. They become empowered to begin sharing their stories about who Jesus is and what he has done, inviting others to know him, love him, serve him, and be saved through him. Today we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, looking forward to the Feast of Pentecost next Sunday.

But wait a second… didn’t I just mention that there were nine days in between the Ascension and Pentecost? Indeed, the Feast of the Ascension is traditionally observed on Ascension Thursday, a few days ago earlier this week. But in our diocese and the vast majority of dioceses in the U.S., the bishops officially transfer the feast to today,
the following Sunday, so that more of the faithful will encounter and celebrate this feast. Another quirky thing about today’s Mass is how the story of Jesus’ Ascension is recounted more thoroughly by our first reading, from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, than by our Gospel reading, which briefly mentions the event.

The Acts of the Apostles says, when Jesus’ disciples had gathered together they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” In other words, ‘Will you now forcefully make your kingdom come, restoring the earthly kingdom of David and Solomon, or perhaps now even impose a still greater kingdom where God’s will is done as fully on earth as it is in heaven?’ Jesus answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.” When Jesus comes again in manifest, unveiled glory, with all his angels with him, no one will be able to ignore Christ the King or harass his flock any longer, but regarding the time of that return, no one knows the day or the hour except God. In the meantime, Jesus says, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem… and to the ends of the earth.”

When he had said this, as the disciples were looking on, Jesus was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight. So there they were, looking intently at the sky, not quite exactly sure what they were supposed to do now. I wonder how many hours they would have stood gapping at the sky if not for what happened next. Suddenly, two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. (Though not explicitly stated, these seem to be angels in human appearance. Well-informed young men in white had also been at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning, announcing and helping the disciples understand Jesus having risen from the dead.) At the Ascension, the messengers said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” With this reassuring redirection, the disciples return from the Mount of Olives into the city of Jerusalem to pray and prepare for the Holy Spirit’s next move. The Apostles had received the Holy Spirit before in some measure. On Easter Sunday evening, Jesus had breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” But they required a further gift of the Spirit to know and act on what God specifically wished them to do.

Today, we are in similar circumstances as those first Christians. We each first received the Holy Spirit at our baptisms and entered a deeper, more extensive relationship with him through our confirmations. Now, as we anticipate the Feast of Pentecost, I urge you to pray for the Holy Spirit to enlighten and empower you for what God wants you to do next. Our community is now happily returning nearer to normal, but what will our new habits and endeavors be? This post-pandemic world needs God—it always has—and the people in your world you need Jesus Christ and his Church. By your words and actions, Jesus wants you to show and share with others who Jesus is for you and what he has done for you, inviting others to know him, love him, serve him, and be saved through him. Jesus Christ is not forcibly imposing his Kingdom but sharing and advancing it subtly, intricately, mysteriously, and most wonderfully, especially through persons who are open to doing his will.

I believe God wants to begin one or more new things with you. So I urge you to ask him in these days, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” To ask the question is the start of saying “Yes” to him, but to refuse to ask the question is to answer him “No.” So ask, and seek, and see what new and great things the Lord would do through you during this new springtime for the Church.

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