Christ's ascent to heaven is depicted in a stained-glass window in a church in New York. The Solemnity of the Ascension of Jesus in the Diocese of Trenton this year has been transferred from Thursday, May 21 to Sunday, May 24. CNS file photo
Christ's ascent to heaven is depicted in a stained-glass window in a church in New York. The Solemnity of the Ascension of Jesus in the Diocese of Trenton this year has been transferred from Thursday, May 21 to Sunday, May 24. CNS file photo
Gospel Reflection for May 24, 2020, the Solemnity of the Ascension of Jesus

While here in the Diocese of Trenton we are unaccustomed to celebrating the Solemnity of the Ascension on a Sunday, it is fairly normative throughout much of the country and even the world. Relative to our particular situation now with public Masses still suspended due to the pandemic, we have an opportunity now to reflect on the meaning of this feast in different ways.

Jesus has spent 40 days where he seems to appear with some frequency to the disciples but really only to those who followed him. St. Paul recounts that Jesus appeared to 500 disciples at one time. We have no knowledge of this in the Acts, and, would have to presume that this happened in Galilee and not in the environs of Jerusalem. Although the disciples were locked in the upper room out of fear during the dark days following the Crucifixion, it seems that once Jesus has appeared to them, they are more comfortable traveling about between Jerusalem and Galilee. Yet, it is in Jerusalem, and across the Kidron Valley from the Temple, that they are gathered with Jesus in the First Reading from Acts and in the Gospel from Matthew for this feast. They are within a few hundred yards of Gethsemane where Jesus suffered in agony as he was awaiting arrest just six weeks before.

We know very little of what Jesus said to his disciples. Neither the Gospels proper nor the Acts of the Apostles tell us very much about the appearances or teachings of Jesus during this time. We might expect that Jesus revealed much to them, and it is also likely that they came to understand more profoundly all that they had seen and heard in the time he spent with them over the course of his ministry.

The disciples do still seem off-guard when, as accounted in the Acts, Jesus delivers his final instructions to them as he prepares to ascend to heaven and take his place at the Father’s Right Hand. What he tells them here, and what Matthew accounts in the Gospel, leaves us with the very mission of the Church – who we are as disciples of Jesus in every time and place.

The mandate seems simple enough – proclaim the Gospel, make disciples, and baptize them in the name of the Trinity.

The challenge before the Church from the beginning, and certainly just as pertinent and challenging today, is to “make disciples.”

While in modern times the word “Mass” as we use it for the sacred worship and principal liturgical rite of the Catholic Church is a noun, the origins of the term is a verb. Coming from the Latin: “Ite, missa est,” translated now as “The Mass is ended.” However, in his Apostolic Exhortation, “Sacramentum Caritatis” Pope Benedict XVI comments: “These words help us to grasp the relationship between the Mass just celebrated and the mission of Christians in the world. In antiquity, missa simply meant ‘dismissal.’ However, in Christian usage it gradually took on a deeper meaning. The word ‘dismissal’ has come to imply a ‘mission.’ These few words succinctly express the missionary nature of the Church. The people of God might be helped to understand more clearly this essential dimension of the Church's life, taking the dismissal as a starting- point.”

With this deeper understanding, then, we see that the faithful are not merely sent home at the end of Mass, but that having been enlivened by the sacred Word and then fed with the Eucharist, we are sent forth to live and proclaim the Gospel to the world in which we live. It is the sacred mission – as we all share in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ – to make disciples.

Perhaps this is the great failure of the Church over the past century or so. We presume we have disciples. For a long time, our churches were full to overflowing. This is rarely the case today. It is evident that through our schools and religious education programs we are not as successful at “making disciples” as we once thought we were.

The Church in every age and place must fulfill the mission given to her by Jesus on the day of the Ascension: bear witness and make disciples in all nations.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.