The Gospel of Luke tells us that when Jesus was taken up to heaven, the disciples did him homage and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. Why this joy? We might have expected them to feel abandoned or sad at this separation of Jesus from them. But no, they did not feel abandoned. Our Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, wrote beautifully about this in the second volume of his book, Jesus of Nazareth:
… the disciples do not feel abandoned. They do not consider Jesus to have disappeared far away into an inaccessible heaven. They are obviously convinced of a new presence of Jesus. They are certain…. that he is now present to them in a new and powerful way. They know that ‘the right hand of God’ to which he ‘has been exalted’ includes a new manner of his presence; they know that he is now permanently among them, in the way that only God can be close to us…… “Ascension” does not mean departure into a remote region of the cosmos but, rather, the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy.
This is the joy of today’s feast, not that Jesus has departed from the world. Christ’s Ascension means that He no longer belongs to the world of corruption and death that conditions our life. But He did not journey off into space somewhere. He ascended to the Father. Because Jesus is with the Father who embraces and sustains the entire cosmos, He is close to each one of us forever. We can call upon Him and He is always within our hearing. We can inwardly draw near to Him. He comes to us in the sacraments, most amazingly in the Eucharist.
Jesus is also close to us through the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father. The whole Trinity is involved with us! In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says to the disciples: Behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. This promise of the Father is the Holy Spirit. That’s why Jesus did not send the disciples out on mission at that moment. He told them to wait, to stay in the city until they (were) clothed with power from on high. This power is the Holy Spirit outpoured on Pentecost.
We read about the event of the Ascension also in the Acts of the Apostles. There we read that, before his Ascension, Jesus told the disciples that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. He said: you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses….
The disciples needed to wait for the Holy Spirit and they did, along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the upper room. He descended upon them on Pentecost which we will celebrate next Sunday.
The Holy Spirit is the power through which Jesus caused the disciples and causes all of us, His disciples today, to experience his closeness. Experiencing His closeness, knowing Him intimately through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are strengthened to be His witnesses. This is how the Church, Christ’s family, spread from Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth. This is how the Church grew: through witnesses, starting with Peter and the apostles, and down through the centuries, men and women close to Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, people of faith living their lives as witnesses of the Risen Lord. And that should include you and me.
We live in an age where there are important challenges to evangelization and to Christian witness. We need a revival of mission, especially in our secularized culture. The message of Christ will have an impact on our world only through the witness of believers who live the Gospel in a convincing and faithful manner. To do so, we must listen to the Word of God, be men and women of prayer, with lives centered in the Holy Eucharist. We must be men and women who open our hearts to the gifts of the Holy Spirit we received at Baptism and Confirmation.
If our faith in the Risen Lord is alive, if we are close to Christ, our hearts will be full of joy and the mission of witnessing to our faith will come naturally. The joy of following Christ impels us to bring to others the good news of salvation with the courage that comes from the Holy Spirit.
Blessed John Paul II once said that the Holy Spirit is “the secret of the life of the Church.” Without the Holy Spirit, we would not experience the joy of faith nor have the power to spread and defend the faith. Come Holy Spirit!
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