When we celebrate the solemnity of the Ascension, we find ourselves in very much the same situation as the disciples who watched Jesus ascend. We gaze into the sky and ask, “What now?” The risen Jesus seems to have left once and for all. The disciples certainly felt a great sense of loss at Jesus’ disappearance. After the Resurrection, Jesus came and went pretty much at will, since he no longer seemed subject to the limitations of space and time. There is, however, something ultimate about this ascent of Jesus. So, they stand and watch him disappear into the clouds.
It is easy to gaze in open mouthed wonder; just as the disciples stayed at the foot of the mountain. The two men who appear remind the disciples to return to Jerusalem and await the arrival of the Holy Spirit. They will learn that their own task is just beginning and far from over.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples two things. First, they are to go, “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.” Secondly, he is with us “always until the end of the age.” There is command and assurance.
As contemporary disciples, we must strive to draw all nations to him. Even though Jesus uses the image of baptism for drawing all peoples to himself, there is much more to making disciples than a mere act of baptizing. Jesus commands his disciples to teach people how to be in the world as he was in the world. We look to the Gospels for how Jesus was in the world. He cared for the poor. He healed the sick, blind, deaf and mute. So, anytime we assist any marginalized person, we are offering salvation just as Jesus offered salvation.
Jesus’ disciples even now must affirm in faith that, even though he is not physically present to us as he had been before his Passion, death, and Resurrection he is with us always. He continues to be our companion as we live out the Gospel commands. When we find others in need and respond, we manifest the continuing presence of Jesus in the world. If we recall the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, we see that
Jesus did not distribute the food himself, but had the disciples perform that task. So, in union with Jesus, even today, we distribute his care to those who are hungry, lack homes and appropriate clothing.
As we commemorate the Ascension, we cannot allow ourselves to be trapped by Jesus’ ascent to the Father as an excuse for thinking our discipleship has ended. The most important components of the Ascension are the commission Jesus gives and the assurance of his abiding presence.
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.