The Ascension and Discipleship

‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Mt. 28:20).

Our Lord’s Ascension which we celebrate today (or as in the universal Church, at the proper time last Thursday) marks the exaltation and glorification of Jesus, the sign and seal of the accomplishment of His mission. His glorification as Lord enables Him to fulfill the words of this promise through the gift of the Holy Spirit and His sacramental presence, especially His Eucharistic Presence until the end of the age. St. Augustine says of this mystery of the Ascension, This is a great truth; that He ascended above all the heavens, yet is near to those on earth (The Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. II, p. 1840). Yes, Our Lord is near for He dwells among us in the Blessed Sacrament and is present to us in the other sacraments of the Church.

At the Ascension the Church learns the true meaning of her identity and we learn the full implications of Christian discipleship. What was called discipleship before Easter is now more completely understood as mission, and this mission is also ours: ‘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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’. (Mt. 28:19-20).  Discipleship entails a participation in Our Lord’s mission of salvation and of bearing witness to the truth of Christ. We who know Him and love Him are therefore formed by Him into missionary disciples.

What this means for each one of us directly and personally, of course varies. What it clearly implies for all of us however, is the necessity of participating in some form in the Church’s mission of service to the world. The most obvious expression of this mission is the practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy; and we are familiar with these. The Apostle Paul reminds however, that the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). We serve the mission of Christ and of His Church best by heeding the Apostle’s exhortation: If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not the things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God (Col. 3:1-3).

Perhaps more than anything, we can contribute to the mission of the Church by witnessing to the reality of the spiritual or metaphysical in a world that compulsively and obsessively seeks the things that are on earth. The materialism that governs and guides the life of the world causes many people to live at a base level of existence, resulting in lives that are de-based, usually by appetites unmoderated by temperance and a lack of any conscious awareness of our spiritual nature. In this sense, our times are not unlike the earliest days of the Church when the first followers of Our Lord contended with the excesses and cruelty of the pagan world.

Though we find ourselves living in the third millennium after our Lord’s Redemptive Incarnation, and though it is no exaggeration to say that the Gospel had indeed been proclaimed to the entire world, we are nevertheless living in a time of weak faith. Perhaps the perfect epitaph for our age is given to us in our Gospel reading. When they saw Him, they worshipped Him; but some doubted (Mt. 28:17). This text is very telling. In the world that we live in, though atheism is prevalent and militant, agnosticism, that is, religious doubt is presented as the only enlightened position; and this despite the fact that scientific evidence overwhelmingly points to a universe that is not the random product of evolution but of intelligent design. There are those who refuse to believe, for to do so means that we must submit to an authority higher than ourselves. Yet, many people struggle to believe. For most people, senseless suffering causes difficulties in believing; not doubts but difficulties. Why does God not intervene? The truth of course, is that God’s omnipotence stops at the threshold of our free will; and in the sacred Passion God has Himself tasted the bitterness of senseless and cruel suffering.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty for believers today is seeing the Church so terribly afflicted by what we might describe as self-inflicted wounds. Let us never doubt that the Lord is firmly in charge. We must ever seek to be numbered among those who worship Him in spirit and in truth; not among those who doubt. We must all the more go on living and acting as believers and adorers; and we must pray always for the grace of perseverance. With even greater deliberation and purpose we must seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Simply, this means that we live our lives with a view to Heaven and the transcendent purpose of our lives. Our Lord has tasted suffering and death and He has conquered both. Difficulties are not doubts. We must bring our difficulties to Our Lord’s Sacred Heart and never tire of heeding His gentle words of comfort: ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden…Learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls;’ (Mt. 11:28-29). God has created us for eternity; to share His own Trinitarian life. This truth guides all our thoughts and actions; and it sustains us in times of difficulties, for God’s plan of salvation cannot be frustrated. Each Sunday, as we come together to worship God, we experience the intimacy of His Sacramental Presence. The celebration and adoration of the Mystery of the Eucharist is our glory as Christians; and the efforts we make to glorify God and to honour and revere this Mystery result in a vibrant Catholic culture. The Sacrament of His Love inspires great deeds of love. This is how we best adore God and how we best assist those who struggle to believe.

May we never lose sight of our ultimate destiny and goal and set [our] minds on things that are above. St. John Henry Newman exhorts us: May it be our blessedness, as years go on, to add one grace to another, and advance upward, step by step, neither neglecting the lower after attaining the higher, nor aiming at the higher before attaining the lower. The first grace is faith, the last is love; first comes zeal, afterwards loving-kindness; first comes humiliation, then comes peace; first comes diligence, then comes resignation…May we learn to mature all graces in us; — fearing and trembling, watching and repenting, because Christ is coming; joyful, thankful and careless of the future, because He is come (Sermon on Equanimity, Sermon 5, Parochial and Plain Sermons).