Father Garry Koch speaks on how the 40 days between Easter and the Ascension should be a time of reflection. The image of the Ascension of the Lord that is shown is found in St. Mary of the Lake Church, Lakewood,  File photo
Father Garry Koch speaks on how the 40 days between Easter and the Ascension should be a time of reflection. The image of the Ascension of the Lord that is shown is found in St. Mary of the Lake Church, Lakewood, File photo
Gospel reflection for May 29, 2022, Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

From this year going forward, the Solemnity of the Ascension replaces the Seventh Sunday of Easter in the dioceses of New Jersey. This is a common practice in much of the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.

Our Readings for the solemnity open in the Acts of the Apostles where St. Luke recounts for us the moment of the Ascension. Jesus, having instructed his disciples after the Resurrection, and preparing them for their ministry, must now return to his Father. As the Incarnation observes the descent of the Son from the Father into the human world, the Ascension observes the Son returning from this world to his proper place at the right hand of the father. The Ascension is, then, the necessary consequence of the Incarnation. Jesus cannot remain with his disciples or with the successive Church forever. This would supplant human freedom and undermine the importance of faith at the core of our relationship with God. 

It also seems necessary that Jesus must ascend before the Holy Spirit can descend upon the disciples. The work of Jesus, now complete, must have a conclusion. The Resurrection expresses the triumph of Jesus over sin and Death. The Ascension expresses the preparation for the coming of the time of the church, which is inaugurated at Pentecost. 

A period of 40 days followed after the Resurrection before the Ascension, reflective of the 40 days of Jesus’ preparation for his public ministry, the forty days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai preparing to receive the Commandments, and the 40 years of the Israelite’s sojourn from slavery to the promised land. 

This 40 day period of Easter has been for us a time to reflect on the meaning of the Resurrection of Jesus in our own experience of faith, and to prepare ourselves for the promised kingdom to come. From the Ascension we glean yet a deeper sense of this hope in the midst of the struggles of this life. Not only has Jesus overcome Death, he promises that he does so not solely for himself as a sign of who he is, but as a sign to us of what is to come. The tomb could not hold Jesus, and the tomb also cannot hold us either. Jesus ascends to the Father, and promises to send the Spirit, who descends 10 days later on the disciples. But Jesus also will return in power to bring about the end of human history and restore all things to the original grace that all of creation enjoyed from the very beginning. The Ascension might have been the moment when the disciples looked up, but from that moment on, the Church is always looking forward.

There yet remains another 10-day stretch when the disciples are waiting for the promised Holy Spirit. It is then that Peter, as the first among the disciples, guides them in the selection of another to replace Judas who had betrayed Jesus. Peter knew that Jesus chose twelve of them for a particular purpose and that their number must be complete before the Holy Spirit would descend upon them.

With the Ascension of Jesus, and prior to the descent of the Holy Spirit, the nascent Church is already forming. The admonition of the disciples by the angel immediately after Jesus ascends highlights for them what they need to do. It is not enough for them to wait, they must begin to act and to engage. While they do not yet know exactly what to say and how to say it -- that comes on Pentecost -- they know that they need to prepare themselves for that moment. This, then, might be the most crucial time of their lives together. Now, with Jesus having ascended to the Father, the disciples must certainly realize that their time together as a community of friends, traveling companions, and disciples has reached its end. Soon, when the Holy Spirit empowers them, they will disperse throughout the Roman world, and will never be together again.

This is their time to reflect on who Jesus is, on what they have experienced over the course of their time with him, and most particularly on the Paschal events. This is not a passive time of waiting, the disciples are readying themselves for what comes next. 

They do not know when, or how, the Holy Spirit will descend upon them. But they know that they will know it when it happens. 

In a sense we are like those disciples waiting. Yes, we have received the Holy Spirit and that same Spirit continues to guide and instruct the church. But as we pray in the embolism prayer at Mass: “we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” Jesus ascends therefore, so that we might know and share in the life that he has prepared for us.

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