The Ascension of the Lord (Year A)
God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them”
The solemnity of the Lord’s Ascension invites us to reflect again on this mysterious event and, in its context, on the very last words that the risen Christ left for the disciples before ascending to heaven, as the evangelists narrated. The Gospel of this liturgical year A invites us to meditate more deeply on the episode of Christ’s ascension according to the account of Saint Matthew, in particular on the “missionary mandate” of the risen Lord to his disciples at the moment of “farewell.” We will focus on three details in the evangelical story.
1. Again “to Galilee, to the mountain”
The place of the Ascension of the Lord that Saint Matthew the Evangelist wants to underline is very significant: “The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.” This mention is concrete (Galilee) and at the same time vague (on the mountain indicated by Jesus but without a name). It seemingly serves not to provide a precise geographical indication, but to offer a theological and spiritual perspective on which to reflect. In other words, it would be out of place to compare this account of the Ascension according to St Matthew with that according to St Luke in his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles (first reading) to ask who offers more precise information on the place where Jesus ascended into heaven: Galilee or near Jerusalem. (It would therefore be incorrect to criticize the credibility of the evangelical accounts in question, which want to underline more the fundamental theological message of the mystery that happened in history).
We just need to scrutinize and further understand the theological vision that each evangelist wants to convey. In this perspective, the reference to Galilee in the Gospel of Saint Matthew should be underlined as the spatial context of the farewell meeting between the Risen One and his disciples. A highly symbolic circle clearly emerges: in Galilee Jesus began his earthly mission, and he ends it now again in Galilee. Thus, Jesus’ disciples will be sent by Him throughout the world, starting the mission right from Galilee, just like their Master and Lord.
Here, it seems useful to recall our consideration in a previous comment (3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time): Galilee in Jesus’ time is that of the Gentiles and Israel (the land of Zàbulon and Naphtali); it thus becomes the image of the whole world in which Israelites and non-Israelites, Jews and Gentiles, coexisted. It was the (micro)cosmos in which Jesus operated and fulfilled God’s plan of salvation for all humankind. In that land Jesus, Son of God began it all, thus arose God’s “a great light” for “the people who sit in darkness.” So much so that He Himself will declare, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12). He is the light that illuminates and reveals, in word and deed, the true face of the merciful and compassionate God who loves and calls everyone to know, that is, to experience, His love in order to enjoy life in abundance with and in God. This begins in the Galilee of Israel and the Gentiles.
St. Matthew, at the end of his gospel, will “take” everyone, Jesus and His disciples, back “to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them” (Mt 28:16). There the last appearance of the Risen Jesus to His disciples will take place, before the Ascension, and there He will leave them the great missionary command: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations […]. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:19-20). Thus closes the circle of Jesus’ mission on earth: from Galilee to Galilee, and so now begins the mission of His disciples, of all, including those who are “doubting” (cf. Mt 28:17): from Galilee to the whole world, whose symbol remains that land of Zàbulon and Naphtali. Though going to the farthest ends of the earth, Jesus’ missionary disciples will mystically remain in this Galilee of His, where He will continue to be with them in their missionary activities “always, until the end of the age.” Therefore, His disciples will also have the same mission and vocation to be “light of the world,” just like their Master Jesus, God’s light shining in the darkness, in the Galilee of the world.
2. “But they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them”
As mentioned above, in the solemn moment of Christ’s last appearance to his disciples, these still “doubted,” as the evangelist underlines. It is an incredible fact: in front of the true presence of the risen Lord, they, all or many, still did not believe, even if “when they saw him, they worshiped [lit. prostrated themselves].” But what is even more exceptional is that, despite their doubts and weak faith, the Risen One “approached” them and entrusted them with the lofty mandate to continue his own mission of making disciples all over the world. Leaving the analysis of the “missionary command” for the next point, we would like to underline the great relevance, even today, of Jesus’ trust in his disciples when sending them on the mission.
Indeed, what happened at that moment on the mountain in Galilee could suggest two important aspects for missionary spirituality. First of all, it is the “doubt” even in those who “prostrated themselves when they saw him.” We already see in this prostration of the disciples a sign of their faith. However, such faith in the Lord did not completely eliminate possible doubts. Indeed, even the Lord himself here seemingly did not want to eliminate these doubts. He took note of that, understood that, and went beyond that. He did not choose the most perfect, the purest of faith, the doubtless, for his mission. He simply wanted those willing to collaborate with him in spite of everything, and what matters most, what is required most, is the absolute fidelity/faithfulness on the part of the disciples in transmitting the Master’s words in the mission: “teaching them [the peoples] to observe all that I have commanded you.” This is valid for the disciples-missionaries of then as of today, in every time and in every place!
Secondly, at that moment on the mountain in Galilee, the resurrected Master has indeed placed enormous trust in those who “doubted.” In reality, it is his “style,” patient and merciful, which he demonstrated several times to the disciples after the Resurrection, as he did with Thomas the Apostle and also in the story with the two journeying to Emmaus. And even before any action or word, the fact that “Jesus approached” those who “doubted” him on the mountain, appears very beautiful and highly profound, as He did to the two lost and discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus. Here, we can listen again to Pope Francis’ significant comment on this act of “approaching” of Jesus, as written in this year’s World Mission (Sun)Day Message:
Then, “as they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them” (v. 15). As when he first called the disciples, so now, amid their bewilderment, the Lord takes the initiative; he approaches them and walks alongside them. So too, in his great mercy, he never tires of being with us, despite all our failings, doubts, weaknesses, and the dismay and pessimism that make us become “foolish and slow of heart” (v. 25), men and women of little faith.
Today, as then, the Risen Lord remains close to his missionary disciples and walks beside them, particularly when they feel disoriented, discouraged, fearful of the mystery of iniquity that surrounds them and seeks to overwhelm them. So, “let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of hope!” (Evangelii Gaudium, 86). The Lord is greater than all our problems [and doubts, as we could add!], above all if we encounter them in our mission of proclaiming the Gospel to the world. For in the end, this mission is his and we are nothing more than his humble co-workers, “useless servants” (cf. Lk 17:10).
3. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them”
Here we are before the “missionary command” of the Lord, in which every expression, indeed every word, must be engraved in the hearts of all his disciples. Faced with the richness and depth of this last message from the Risen One to him, we feel unable to offer some concise comment due to limited time. Let us therefore allow ourselves to be helped by the authoritative words of the Pope, Saint John Paul II, in the Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio (On the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate), a document that is always timely and relevant:
22. All the Evangelists, when they describe the risen Christ’s meeting with his apostles, conclude with the “missionary mandate”: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,... and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:18-20; cf. Mk 16:15-18; Lk 24:46-49; Jn 20:21-23).
This is a sending forth in the Spirit, as is clearly apparent in the Gospel of John […]
23. The different versions of the “missionary mandate” contain common elements as well as characteristics proper to each. Two elements, however, are found in all the versions. First, there is the universal dimension of the task entrusted to the apostles, who are sent to “all nations” (Mt 28:19); “into all the world and...to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15); to “all nations” (Lk 24:47); “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Secondly, there is the assurance given to the apostles by the Lord that they will not be alone in the task, but will receive the strength and the means necessary to carry out their mission. The reference here is to the presence and power of the spirit and the help of Jesus himself: “And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them” (Mk 16:20).
[…] In Matthew, the missionary emphasis is placed on the foundation of the Church and on her teaching (cf. Mt 28:19-20; 16:18). According to him, the mandate shows that the proclamation of the Gospel must be completed by a specific ecclesial and sacramental catechesis. […]
The four Gospels therefore bear witness to a certain pluralism within the fundamental unity of the same mission, a pluralism which reflects different experiences and situations within the first Christian communities. It is also the result of the driving force of the Spirit himself; it encourages us to pay heed to the variety or missionary charisms and to the diversity of circumstances and peoples. Nevertheless, all the Evangelists stress that the mission of the disciples is to cooperate in the mission of Christ; “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20). Mission, then, is based not on human abilities but on the power of the risen Lord.
The Solemnity of the Lord’s Ascension is therefore always also the Feast of the missionary sending out of Christ’s disciples. With gratitude for the great mercy and trust that the Risen One had and continues to have for us, his modern disciples-missionaries, tormented often by so many doubts that come from an “incredulous” and “evil” generation, let us feel called to always be faithful to his words in carrying out his mission among all peoples. And that in our life as Christ’s disciples-missionaries we may always raise our gaze to Heaven where our Master-Lord ascended and where He now reigns with “all power in heaven and on earth,” in order to draw strength from Him who is God-with-us every day, “always, until the end of the age.” Amen.