May 10, 2024

Christ the Cornerstone

Uplifted by Christ’s ascension, let’s carry on his saving work

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11).

The disciples of Jesus were not naturally bold or courageous. In fact, they were timid men who were scared of their own shadows.

When Jesus was arrested, nearly all of them fled. Even after the Lord’s resurrection, they gathered behind locked doors out of fear, and when Jesus appeared to them and proved that he was not a ghost, they remained anxious and confused.

It’s no wonder then that when Jesus ascended into heaven right before their eyes, the disciples were paralyzed with astonishment and fear. In spite of the fact that he assured them he was not leaving them forever, they had no idea what they were supposed to do next.

Jesus’ last words to his disciples were not especially encouraging. As we read in St. Mark’s Gospel:

Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe; in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover. (Mk 16:15-18)

It was daunting enough for simple Galilean fishermen to be told to “go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature,” but the prospect of driving out demons, picking up serpents and drinking deadly poison had to be perplexing and discouraging.

Even when Jesus promised that they would “receive power from the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:8), they did not understand exactly what that meant.

Why did Jesus have to leave them—to return to his Father in heaven? Why didn’t he stay with them and take charge of the new movement that became the universal Church? For that matter, why didn’t he “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6) which is what devout Jews expected from the Messiah?

We don’t know the answers to these questions. What we do know is that Jesus told the disciples that “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). This means that we must trust that God’s wisdom, which is far greater than our own, will establish the appropriate “times” and “seasons” for the things that will happen in his providence.

What we do know is that when Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, the same timid men who had been paralyzed by fear became bold and courageous missionaries on fire with God’s truth and love. Christ’s ascension into heaven opened up a whole new way of living for his disciples. Instead of holding back, allowing Jesus himself to carry on his work, the disciples now had to take responsibility for the mission he gave them: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15).

We know from our own experience that there was no way these very ordinary men could accomplish Christ’s mission without help. Everything was stacked against them. They had no money, no official status and no “grand plan” for evangelization. What they did have was the grace of God which they received when the Holy Spirit came. By the power of the Holy Spirit (and no other power), they became bold witnesses of Jesus Christ “in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth” (Acts 1:8).

St. Mark concludes his description of the Lord’s ascension into heaven saying: So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God. But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs. (Mk 16:19-20)

This Gospel passage almost makes it sound easy. The Lord ascended, and immediately the disciples went forth and preached everywhere. But we know it didn’t happen this way. Without the grace of the Holy Spirit, none of this would have been possible. The disciples needed a lot of help, and we are no different.

As we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord this Sunday, let’s remember to thank God for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which make it possible for us to live the joy of the Gospel and to share the good news with all our sisters and brothers everywhere. †

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