A good story will typically end nicely, bringing everything to a neat conclusion—perhaps with the words “And they lived happily ever after.” So it would make sense for the Gospel — the greatest story ever told — to end the same way: Christ returns home to His Father and “They live happily ever after.”
We find in the Gospels, however, not a neat, tidy ending but the set-up for a sequel. All four Gospels conclude with a reference of some kind to future events or missions. Only Mark and Luke even mention Our Lord’s Ascension (and Mark just barely). Indeed, the Ascension itself, while concluding things in one sense, also cues a new beginning. It is not so much “The End” as “To Be Continued.”
In the same vein, as we celebrate the Lord’s Ascension, Mother Church places before us His Great Commission: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). Perhaps we could call it the Great Continuation — because the command Our Lord gives is, in essence, to continue His presence on earth. We have this Gospel on the Ascension to teach that Our Lord’s return to His Father does not end the story but begins a new chapter. His life and His mission are to be continued in His disciples.
The word “disciple” indicates, of course, a follower of Christ. But what kind of follower? Our Lord does not desire disciples who follow at a distance or who follow mindlessly. He desires disciples who follow because they know and love Him. The word “disciple” literally means “student.” To follow Christ requires that we be His students. It demands that we study Him — not only things about Him or what others say about Him — but Him, the man Himself. To be a disciple means to know Him personally. He cannot continue His life in those who do not know Him. And a disciple’s learning never ends. He never grows complacent or satisfied with his knowledge but always desires to know Jesus more intimately.
Further, from the word “disciple” comes the word “discipline,” because to study anything demands self-control and self-denial. A disciple of Christ must therefore deny himself. Our Lord cannot continue His life in those enslaved to themselves. The man who lacks self-discipline, who chases after his every desire and passing fancy, will never know the Lord. Without the capacity to control and deny oneself, discipleship is impossible.
Notice also how Our Lord commands disciples to be made: by “baptizing” and “teaching.” In other words, it is a work from the inside and the outside. To reach inside, Our Lord issues the most basic sacramental command: “(baptize) in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Baptism and indeed all the sacraments enlighten the intellect from within by the grace of God Himself. Disciples are made from within. We come to know Christ Jesus by way of His Spirit dwelling within us. Our study of the Faith is not a mere external affair but something accomplished deep within our souls. Students of Christ learn Him primarily in their interior life.
Still, instruction from the outside remains essential. So Our Lord also commands the Apostles, “(teach) them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Born again as children of God, we should desire to hear the truth from our heavenly Father. The teachings and rulings of the Church answer the desire for truth and holiness created in our souls by baptism.
Our Lord both ascends and remains. He ascends in His human body and remains in His mystical body, the Church. May we show ourselves to be true disciples, learning Christ Himself through the enlightenment of His grace and the instructions of His Church. For only through genuine disciples can His life in this world be continued.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on CE on May 3, 2008.