The celebration of the Ascension used to leave me a bit flat in bygone years. It was clear what Good Friday did for me. And Easter Sunday’s benefits were indisputable. But as for the Ascension, what was in it for me?
Christianity is about a special kind of love we call agape or charity. It is love that looks away from itself to another and gives itself away to another. The Divine Word did not become man because something was in it for Him. Neither did he endure the scandal and torture of the cross due to self-interest. Charity loves others enough to share in their joys and sorrows.
The first thing to remember about the Ascension is that it is about sharing in Jesus’ joy. It is about celebrating his return to the heavenly glory to which he refused to cling (Philippians 2:6-11) when the Divine word leapt from the heights of heaven into the depths of the Virgin’s womb. It is about rejoicing that his crown of thorns has been replaced with the kingly crown, and that the mocking crowd at Calvary has been replaced with myriads upon myriads of adoring angels. The Ascension is about Jesus’ triumph, about his vindication and glorification, and if we get our attention off ourselves and allow the Holy Spirit’s love of the Son to animate our souls, we’ll experience greater joy than when we see our child hit a home run or graduate from college.
But the Ascension is not just about loving God with the charity with which He has loved us. It is also a feast about hope. Yes, there is something in it for us. He goes to prepare a place for us. We will one day reign with Him in glory. We will also one day wear crowns made of gold instead of thorns.
For us to endure until that blessed moment, the moment when he returns to make all things new, we need divine power. That’s another reason we ought to rejoice in his Ascension. He takes his place at God’s right hand so that he can pour out the promise of the Father, the Holy Spirit, upon his disciples.
As he ascends, he tells the disciples to wait for this power. But note he does not tell them to wait passively for the rapture. Note he does not tell them to spend their time pouring over Bible prophecies and debating about how he will return and when. In fact in Acts 1:11, after the Lord ascends out of their sight, the angels ask why the disciples just stand there, staring into space.
The waiting is not to be a squandering of precious time. It is waiting for a purpose, nine days of prayer (the first novena!) leading to empowerment. Why empowerment? Because they have work to do. “Penance for the remission of sins is to be preached to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of all this” (Luke 24:46-48).
We used to think that evangelization was performed in mission countries far away, by priests and religious. But the Second Vatican Council told us that our own neighborhoods and families are mission territory, and that every single Catholic is called to be an evangelizer. I’m really not sure that St. Francis of Assisi ever said “Preach the Gospel always; when necessary, use words.” But if he did, note this–Francis often thought it very necessary to use words. He preached in marketplaces, on street-corners, in Churches, wherever there were people. Preaching without some authentic witness of life is certainly counterproductive. But enough of the cop-out that we don’t need to speak, that just the witness of our lives is enough. It is not. We must be able to articulate to people around us what Jesus has done for us, what he means to us, and why he is the answer to the world’s problems. Maybe you are not called to preach on street corners, but the Council and subsequent popes, echoing 1 Peter 3:15, say that everyone is called to be able to say at least this much. Feel inadequate to the task? Intimidated? Pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to move in and through you, and take the time to learn more about your faith so that you can share it with greater confidence.