Gospel Mt 28:16-20
The eleven disciples went to Galilee,
to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.
When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.
Then Jesus approached and said to them,
“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
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.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
No back-up plan
Jesus gave to his followers the task of completing his work by sharing the Good News with the rest of the world.
There’s an ancient legend about the ascension of Jesus into heaven. According to the legend, when Jesus reached heaven, his body still showed the wounds of his crucifixion. His hands and feet still bore the prints from the nails. His side bore the mark from the spear. His back bore the stripes from the whip, and his head bore the wounds from the thorns. When the people in heaven saw these marks, they fell on their knees before Jesus.
They were astounded to see how much he had suffered. Then the angel Gabriel rose up and said to Jesus:
“Lord, how greatly you suffered on earth! Do all the people on earth know and appreciate how much you went through for them and how much you love them?’’
Jesus replied: “Oh, no! Only a handful of people in Palestine know that. The rest haven’t even heard of me. They don’t know who I am. They don’t know how much I suffered, and how much I love them.’’
Gabriel was shocked to hear this. Then he said to Jesus: “How will all the rest of the people on earth ever learn about your suffering and your love?’’
Jesus said: “Just before I left, I told Peter, James, and John, and a few of their friends, to tell the rest of the world for me. “They’ll tell as many people as they can. Those people, in turn, will tell other people. In that way, the whole world will eventually learn about my love for them.’’
Gabriel looked even more confused now. He knew how capricious people are. He knew how forgetful they are. He knew how prone to doubt they are. So he turned to Jesus and said: “But, Lord, what if Peter, James, and John grow tired or frustrated? What if they forget about you? What if they begin to have doubts about you? And even if none of these things happen, what if the people they tell become frustrated? What if they forget? What if they begin to have doubts about you? Didn’t you take these things into account? Don’t you have a back-up plan—just in case?"
Jesus answered: “I did take all these things into account, but I decided against a back-up plan. This is the only plan I have. I’m counting on Peter, James, and John not to let me down. I’m counting on the people they tell not to let me down."
Twenty centuries later, Jesus still has no other plan. He counted on Peter, James, and John, and they didn’t let him down. He counted on the people they told, and they didn’t let him down. And now Jesus counts on us.
The feast of the Ascension celebrates the departure of the Risen Lord from this world to the place reserved for him in heaven. As such, it is the continuation of his Resurrection and the completion of his victory over the forces of sin and death.
The final words of Jesus ought to be memorized and repeated over and over again: "I am with you always, until the end of time." Jesus is saying these words to us every moment of every day … but too often we are not listening! We hear all the prophets of doom and gloom and we live in fear of their dire predictions. But we need most of all to hear the far more truthful words of Jesus, who has all power in heaven and on earth, and who will never abandon us if we trust in his love and if we don't abandon Him. In the presence of that love, even death can be changed as long as we are faithful to His teaching.
As Jesus spoke, he was covered by a cloud (the sign of God's presence) and taken from their sight. He's gone - or is he? They all just stood there, says Acts, gaping upwards to the empty sky. Then two "messengers" (angeloi) appear: "Men of Galilee, what are you doing looking skywards? This Jesus, who has been taken from you to God, will return in the same way you saw him go."
They will not now find Jesus in the sky, in "heaven". They are, as the hymn advises, to "lower their eyes". They have to go back to Jerusalem. Jesus is to be found and made present by them and in them in Eucharist and in daily life.
They - and we - in word and deed are to tell and re-tell the story of Jesus' life, suffering, death and resurrection. They - and we - are to call people to a radical conversion, to forgiveness of their sin through an intimate reconciliation with God, with their brothers and sisters and with the world in which they live and are a part.
Today, on this feast of the Ascension, that mandate is given to each one of us again. And it is in carrying it out that we truly honour the meaning of this feast.