Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, we celebrate that Jesus went back home to the Father. This must be a day of celebration for us, because it is through the Resurrected Jesus ascending from earth into heaven that we have the ability to go to Heaven ourselves. And though we should see our lives here on earth as just a temporary pilgrimage to our everlasting Heavenly homeland, today I want to focus on the experience of the Apostles and see how for them, the Ascension is a kind of preparation for Pentecost in which they will receive the Holy Spirit, which we’ll celebrate next Sunday.
I’m sure you know that Pentecost is 50 days after Easter, Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead; and most of you also probably know that traditionally, the Ascension would have been celebrated on Thursday, 40 days after Resurrection Sunday and 10 days before Pentecost. As our 1st reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us the Resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples for 40 days and spoke to them about the Kingdom of God”.
Ascension and Pentecost are two very important events in the life of the Church; unfortunately, perhaps the Ascension is somewhat overlooked, maybe because it is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday instead of a Sunday, but it really is a feast day of the utmost importance because it is through Jesus ascending and, in essence, unlocking the gates of Heaven which makes the eternal joy of Heaven possible for us.
Our readings today focus on the Ascension as a kind of preparation for the disciples to live out what Pentecost is. Pentecost is called the birthday of the Church, the day in which the mission of the Church began. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, which is our Gospel today, Jesus gives his Church her mission, “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”. The Mission of the Church given by Christ is to make disciples of every nation, so that every person can follow Christ into eternal life in Heaven. This is what it means to evangelize, to witness and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to all peoples. Pope Paul VI in 1975 said, “Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. The Church exists to evangelize.” And so my brothers and sisters, all the recent Popes including Pope Francis has been calling the Church to focus on evangelization and making disciples- that is the Mission of the universal Church given by Christ, and so that is the mission of us, the local parish of Corpus Christi.
Our 1st reading from Acts of the Apostles says, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. My brothers and sisters, the mission given to the Apostles, the mission of the Church, which is the mission of you and I, is to be His witnesses, and to make disciples of all nations.
I know that some of you have already taken up that mission yourselves. I talked to one parishioner the other day who told me a story of evangelizing while waiting for his car to be fixed. A woman asked about the book on the faith he was reading. And this parishioner was able to answer this woman’s questions because he had studied and was living the faith; this parishioner knew the power of the Holy Spirit and so was able to witness Jesus Christ. Are you able to?
I know that some are not ready yet, or don’t know what it means to be his witnesses. To be Christ’s witnesses on earth and to make disciples of all nations can seem daunting, and it can be difficult to have a conversation with someone about God and to share your faith. If right now you are feeling unworthy, unprepared, or if you don’t know if you can fulfill this mission Christ has given to the Church, that is OK. Our Gospel today says that the Apostles themselves doubted and weren’t ready either- that is they weren’t ready until they had a profound experience of the Ascension and received the Holy Spirit.
I ask you to close your eyes to imagine this scene: Jesus was talking to the Apostles face to face telling them about the power the Holy Spirit. Then after talking about the sending of the Holy Spirit, our 1st reading describes the Ascension of Jesus, “when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight into Heaven”. Wow, what a moment, what a personal experience the disciples encountered. The experience of the Ascension brought absolute certainty to their faith, they did not doubt anymore, but they knew Jesus was indeed the Son of God; after all they just saw him being taken up in their midst and ascending to the Father. I imagine the disciples then remembered all that Jesus told them about why he had to ascend to the Father and that they would give the Holy Spirit to them. The apostles were beginning to understand what it meant to be his witnesses; because of what they themselves had witnessed. After all, one cannot witness to something that they haven’t experienced or understood themselves. If you feel your faith isn’t strong enough or you are still unsure about your faith, or you haven’t had that faith confirming encounter as the disciples did, then ask our Lord for that encounter, ask him for that unquenchable and insuppressible faith.
To evangelize doesn’t mean you have to stand on the street corner or go door to door, although you can and some Catholics do. But what would you say to someone who was questioning if they believed in God, or if they tell you they don’t believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God? Are you able to share with others the love God has for you and what knowing God’s love can mean for them? When is the last time you taught someone to observe all that Jesus has commanded us? Are you able to explain to someone what and why the Church teaches what she does about sin and confession, about purgatory, or Church authority? Are you able to compassionately explain the Church’s teachings on marriage or homosexuality, or contraception?
If you answered ‘no’ to any of those questions, or if you don’t feel ready yet, that’s OK. As your pastor, I see my job is to equip you to build up the body of Christ, as Eph 4:12 says. So just as the Ascension was preparation for the disciples to receive the Holy Spirit and begin their mission, consider this your time to prepare; but to warn you it will mean that you do more than just come to Mass on Sundays. So take time to read, study, and most of all, truly encounter the power of Jesus Christ and what He means to you. Jesus wants you to encounter Him just as real as the Apostles encounter at the Ascension. The Discovering Christ and the ChristLife series is here to help you encounter Christ and foster a deeper relationship, and there will be more opportunities to encounter in the future. Likewise, there will be more resources and opportunities for you to grow and learn that we will give to help you. If you don’t know where to start, start now by taking time each and every day in conversation with God in prayer, read the Bible and Catechism of the Catholic Church, listen to Catholic Radio, watch EWTN. Check out the resources in our library. Get some friends and family together to watch and discuss any of the videos the parish is giving you on Formed.org. Learn the faith and how to answer those who don’t fully understand what it means to truly be a witness and disciple of Christ. The more you grow in your faith and encounter Jesus Christ in your daily life, then the more you will be ready to live in the power of the Holy Spirit and fulfill our mission- to witness to Jesus Christ and to make disciples.