Was Jesus’ ascension, which we celebrate today, a conclusion or was it a beginning? Clearly it was both. The ascension was the conclusion of Jesus’ earthly life. But Mark, the writer of today’s gospel, saw it also as a beginning. “The Lord worked with them,” he writes, “and confirmed the word through the accompanying signs.”
Those final words of today’s gospel look not backward, but forward. For Mark, and all the New Testament writers, Jesus’ ascension inaugurates a new age: the age of the Church. In and through his Church Jesus continues now the work he began during his earthly life. And the Church, of course, is all of us -- all the baptized. Jesus’ parting command, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature,” given to his original disciples, is given to us today, no less than to them.
Even in what is often called our post-Christian and secular age the way we number the years still reflects the fundamental Christian belief that we are living in a new age which belongs to Jesus Christ. We designate the years before Christ’s birth with the letters “B.C.” — before Christ. The years since then are called “A.D.” Those letters do not mean not “after Christ.” They stand for the Latin words, “anno Domini,” which mean “in the year of the Lord.” These are the years that belong to him, who is the Lord of history. This is the final age, at the end of which Jesus Christ will come again: not in weakness and obscurity, as he came at Bethlehem, but in power and glory. That was the angel’s message at the end of our first reading: “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you seen him going into heaven.”
That is picture language, of course: poetic imagery to suggest something beyond the power of human language to describe. The gospel too is using picture language when it says that Jesus “took his seat at the right hand of God.” This does not mean that Jesus is in a certain place, but that he exercises a certain function. He is our prophet, our priest, and our king. A prophetis not someone who foretells the future, but rather a person who speaks for God. Jesus spoke for God during his earthly life. In the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, Jesus said: “You have heard the commandment, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ What I say to you is: anyone who looks lustfully on a woman has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts.” (Mt. 5:27f) In that and other such passages Jesus was not interpreting the law. He was speaking as the Lawgiver — he was speaking for God. Jesus continues to exercise this prophetic ministry through his Holy Word, and the teaching of his Church.
Jesus is also our priest. We human priests are only his representatives. It is Jesus for instance, and Jesus alone, who has power to forgive sins in the sacrament of penance. Jesus is the true celebrant of every Mass. When we pray, we approach God through Jesus. That is why we conclude our prayers with the words “through Jesus Christ”, in the power of his Holy Spirit.
Today’s second reading speaks of Jesus as kingwhen it says, again using picture language, that God has “put all things beneath [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the Church, which is his body ... “
The Church is the sphere where Christ’s kingly rule or universal dominion is acknowledged. The world in which the Church lives rejects its true king, and suffers in consequence the turmoil, chaos, and anguish reflected daily in the newspaper headlines and on TV. The Church’s task, which means the task of every one of us who arethe Church, is to expand the sphere in which Christ’s rule is acknowledged. We do so not so much by words (for words are cheap), as by the contagious force of our own example.
Jesus commands us, as he commanded that little band of disciples on a Galilean hillside two thousand years ago, to “go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” In the measure in which we try faithfully to fulfill this command, Jesus continues to do what he promised to do when he gave the command: to confirm it by “signs.” In the pre-scientific world of the first century, there were signs appropriate to that age. Mark mentions them: the power to drive out demons, to speak new languages, immunity to deadly snakes and poisons, the power to heal the sick.
Today’s signs are different: the worldwide example and inspiration of a Mother Teresa, of Pope John Paul II, who soldiered on to the end despite bodily weakness, attracting at successive World Youth Days larger crowds than any rock star. The century just closed brought us the sign of some twelve thousand “witnesses for Christ”: women and men all over the world who, in the bloodiest of all centuries in recorded history, gave their lives for Jesus Christ. “The age of the martyrs has returned,” Pope John Paul II said as the twentieth century drew to a close. In a great ecumenical service at the turn of the millennium in Rome’s Coliseum, where many martyrs shed their blood for Christ in antiquity, the Pope joined other Christian leaders in commemorating these twelve thousand witnesses to Christ.
Impressive as their witness is, and the other signs I have mentioned, perhaps the greatest of all today’s signs, confirming the gospel message given to us by Jesus at his ascension, is simply this: that after so much failure by Christians down through the centuries, and by the Church’s leaders and members in our own day; after so many frustrations, after so many betrayals, and after so many defeats in the struggle to fulfill Christ’s missionary command — nevertheless, after twenty centuries, so many, all over the world, are still trying to be faithful. That, my friends, is the true miracle of the feast that gathers us here this day, the gift and grace of the Ascension.