Acts 1.1-11; Ps 47; Eph 1: 17-23; Mt 28: 16-20
Acts 1.6-13a; Ps 47; Eph 4: 7-13; Lk 24, 36b-53
1) Not an easy feast.
Forty days ago, we celebrated Easter: the resurrection of Christ was for us a great joy. Today, the liturgy offers us His ascension to heaven as a cause for joy: “Today, in fact, we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ …to the very throne of God the Father” (Saint Leo the Great, Disc. 2 on Ascension, 1, 4; PL 54, 397-399).
Ascension Day is not reducible to a strange feast where we are asked to be happy because Christ moves away from us going to heaven. What is the meaning of the “ascension” to heaven of the risen Christ? “It means believing that, in Christ, man, the being a man to which we all belong to, entered unheard and new in the intimacy of God. It means that man always finds space in God. Heaven is not a place above the stars, it is something much bolder and bigger: it is to find man’s place in God, and this has its foundation in the interpenetration of humanity and divinity in the crucified and elevated Jesus- man. Christ, the man who is in God, is at the same time God’s perpetual being open to man. He himself is therefore what we call ‘heaven’, for heaven is not a space, but a person, the person of the one in whom God and man are always inseparably united “(Joseph Ratzinger, Preaching and Dogma, Brescia 1983).
Indeed, the final sentence of today’s Gospel: “Behold, I am with you always until the end of ages” (Mt 28: 20), does not contain the words of someone who leaves his friends alone on earth. These last words of Jesus are not a farewell, but explain that He is the living Lord of an unlimited life and that every day He is present with his word and his comforting Love, his Church and his Mystical Body until the fulfillment of time.
Jesus, the Son of God entered into history to be “God with us”, fully fulfills his mission in the total gift of himself by dying and resurrecting, to be the revealed Love that becomes infinite when he is destroyed, when he gives his life. Ascension is the fulfillment of the mystery of God’s Love: by dying Jesus abolishes all limits in order to be “God with us”. He is with us to be the Love that redeems our love and makes our heart capable of dwelling in Love.
Therefore, if Ascension is not an easy-to-understand feast, why does it make arise spontaneously the question: “Why to celebrate if the Beloved is leaving?” On the other hand, the Ascension is a clear feast, because this is “not a cosmic geographic path but the spatial navigation of the heart that leads us from closing ourselves to the love that embraces the universe” (Benedict XVI). The Ascension is the feast of our destiny that has as its destination the loving heaven of God, who elevates the land of our humanity.
It is a fest that shows us that heaven and earth, possession and sacrifice, peace and fatigue are not in contradiction. It is not enough that our existence is entirely and sincerely turned to heaven, then to earth and then again to heaven. Our going to heaven must be gradually completed, in a way such that our living on earth reveals that of heaven. Our living on earth gradually arises in prayer of desire, and this prayer of desire is clarified in adoration. It is not enough for our lives to be entirely and sincerely peace, then struggle and then peace again: our peace must be like the strength that we have accumulated for our effort, and the effort like a spiral of peace.
2) Ascension and Mission.
This destiny of perfect peace in love is interwoven with our 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 Ghost, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” ( Mt 28: 19-20).
The Ascension of Christ that St. Matthew narrates at the end of his gospel, is a great beginning. The disciples see Jesus as He is, as in transfiguration. They love him and prostrate themselves as a sign of total abandonment. On this relationship of love, they welcome the “command” to go all over the world, and to rely on universal perspectives, teaching and christening. To baptize does not mean pouring a little of water on a person’s head, but plunging him into God, in the God of Life, and then teaching him to observe what He commands. What does Christ command? Love. His command is to immerse the human person and teach to love letting be loved and giving love.
It is to fulfill a mission of charity according to the heart of Christ who also asks us:
“Go,” that is to overcome any cultural and religious barriers;
“Make disciples all the nations”, that is that we form a “new people of peoples”;
“Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, that is that we bring to the whole world the revelation of this divine name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit;
“By teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” and thus announcing to men the whole revelation of God, which also brings with it the same revelation of man. One can perceive what man truly is, only in light of this revelation of God. The conciliar document Gaudium et Spes (No. 22) proclaims that the mystery of man is truly enlighten only in the mystery of the incarnate Word.
These indications would be impractical without Christ, who also says to us, “Behold, I am with you every day until the end of the world.” He is always present beside us and in us. We Christians do not trust in ourselves, in our abilities, but in the presence of the Lord.
With Christ, in Christ and for Christ, we become reliable witnesses all over the world. There are no boundaries, prohibited places, peoples or men to whom Christ cannot and should not be witnessed. He is the Lord of all things and of all humans, and therefore must be announced to all and everywhere.
To say that Jesus is the “Lord of all” means affirming, in other words, that He gives meaning to all things. “Go and make disciples”: the mission assumes an assignment. No one announces Jesus in his own name, and, less of all, his own thoughts, but only “all that He commanded.” The disciple must announce in the utmost fidelity and his announcement must arise from listening.
The mission requires a departure: “go”. The disciple does not expect the people of the world to come near: it is he who goes to them. “Make disciples of all nations”: the expression is filled with all the meaning that the word “disciple” has in the Gospel. It is not simply a matter of offering a message, but of establishing a relationship of communion. The disciple is tied to the Master’s person and is committed to sharing his life plan. “I will be with you until the end of time.” This is the great promise that gives the disciple the strength to carry out his mission, going everywhere in the world and preaching the Gospel.
In fact, Christ does not say “Preach the morals of Greek wisdom.” He does not say, for example, to explain Aristotle’s ethics not only because the Apostles were less educated, but because every wisdom becomes of a little value when a person puts himself at the school of Christ, who lovingly guides his sheep that follow Him to the eternal pastures of truth and joy. What Christ demands from men in order to be able to enter the Kingdom of God, is not a certificate of study or of an established career. He asks for a much simpler and radical act: the conversion of the heart and the rebirth in faith and baptism.
“Whoever believes and will be baptized shall be saved: he that doesn’t believe shall be condemned.” First of all “to believe,” because to believe is the fundamental act of Christian life. By believing, by the act of faith, the human person freely chooses the Kingdom of God offered to him by the Church’s magisterium. By the act of faith, therefore, the Christian accepts all the truths to believe: all that Christ has taught us about God and man, about sin and death, judgment, and Paradise.
To believe then is to see life solely in the light of these truths by accepting the “gentle and light” yoke of the law of love for God and neighbor,
Finally, to believe is to live with the mind and the heart, with the thought and the action in the reality of divine life.
In this we find an example in the consecrated virgins who, with their entire life given to Christ, “preach” the loving truth and the redemptive love of God. These women testify that Christian life is linked to the Ascension because our lives are realized by going to heaven, and depend on the fidelity to the promises made in Baptism and renewed in consecration.
With human fragility, but certain in the belief that God is strong in the weak, the consecrated virgins accompany the Bridegroom in his ascension, rejoice in his glorification, live in advance the dimension of Paradise and remind us that the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord is the liturgical feast of Paradise that is open to humanity by the solemn entrance of Christ into heaven to the right of the Father. In his farewell, Jesus leaves to the apostles (and to us) his truth and power, for his ascension was not a departure but an intensification of his presence to the extreme limits of space and time: “Behold, I am with You every day until the end of the world “(Mt 28:20).
Saint Leo the Great, pope Sermon 2 de Ascensione 1-4
PL 54, 397-399 Our faith is increased by the Lord’s ascension
At Easter, beloved brethren, it was the Lord’s resurrection which was the cause of our joy; our present rejoicing is on account of his ascension into heaven. With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father. It is upon this ordered structure of divine acts that we have been firmly established, so that the grace of God may show itself still more marvelous when, in spite of the withdrawal from men’s sight of everything that is rightly felt to command their reverence, faith does not fail, hope is not shaken, charity does not grow cold.
For such is the power of great minds, such is the light of truly believing souls, that they put unhesitating faith in what is not seen with the bodily eye; they fix their desires on what is beyond sight. Such fidelity could never be born in our hearts, nor could anyone be justified by faith, if our salvation lay only in what was visible.
And so our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments. Our faith is nobler and stronger because sight has been replaced by a doctrine whose authority is accepted by believing hearts, enlightened from on high. This faith was increased by the Lord’s ascension and strengthened by the gift of the Spirit; it would remain unshaken by fetters and imprisonment, exile and hunger, fire and ravening beasts, and the most refined tortures ever devised by brutal persecutors. Throughout the world women no less than men, tender girls as well as boys, have given their life’s blood in the struggle for this faith. It is a faith that has driven out devils, healed the sick and raised the dead.
Even the blessed apostles, though they had been strengthened by so many miracles and instructed by so much teaching, took fright at the cruel suffering of the Lord’s passion and could not accept his resurrection without hesitation. Yet they made such progress through his ascension that they now found joy in what had terrified them before. They were able to fix their minds on Christ’s divinity as he sat at the right hand of his Father, since what was presented to their bodily eyes no longer hindered them from turning all their attention to the realization that he had not left his Father when he came down to earth, nor had he abandoned his disciples when he ascended into heaven.
The truth is that the Son of Man was revealed as Son of God in a more perfect and transcendent way once he had entered into his Father’s glory; he now began to be indescribably more present in his divinity to those from whom he was further removed in his humanity. A more mature faith enabled their minds to stretch upward to the Son in his equality with the Father; it no longer needed contact with Christ’s tangible body, in which as man he is inferior to the Father. For while his glorified body retained the same nature, the faith of those who believed in him was now summoned to heights where, as the Father’s equal, the only-begotten Son is reached not by physical handling but by spiritual discernment.
With the wish that our heart ascend to heaven with Christ, Don Franco