SOLEMNITY OF THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD
Jesus' public ministry also used elements of physical creation for God's glory. His first miracle was turning water into wine. He used dirt and His own saliva to make mud to heal a blind man. He instructed His followers to eat His flesh and drink His blood. He met His death in a very real way on a very real wooden cross. And His resurrection was just as much a physical reality as His death. In the post-resurrection accounts of Christ He is seen eating and drinking. St. Thomas was able to place his fingers into the wounds on Jesus' body.
Our religion is a very physical religion. And today we celebrate the physical ascension of Jesus into heaven, human body and all. The Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, came to earth to unite the divine nature with human nature and now He takes that human nature up to heaven with Him, where it remains part of the Godhead for all eternity. Where He goes we hope to follow. In the meantime, however, the Incarnation does not end.
Jesus established a physical Church to continue His presence on earth. The Church is led by a physical hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons who minister to the faithful. Jesus established physical sacraments as means of conveying His grace through words, water, bread and wine, holy oils and laying on of hands. The Church ministers to us and the sacraments strengthen us for two purposes. One is so that we may have sure hope of following Jesus into heaven and seeing God ourselves face to face in the Beatific Vision. The other is so that we, the faithful, may continue to be Christ's presence here on earth for others. The Church is called the "body of Christ" (Eph 4:12) not only as a metaphor but as a description of reality. The Church is made up of those who have been baptized into Christ, so that it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us (to paraphrase Paul from Gal 2:20).
The last words Jesus speaks to the Apostles before His ascension are these: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Our gospel reading today has Jesus instructing us, "Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature" (Mk 16:15). We have our marching orders. Our job as members of Christ's body is to bring Christ with us wherever we go. Jesus tells us that this means "to the ends of the earth" and "the whole world." There is not a race, nation, tribe or people to whom Christ does not desire to dwell among. We are to bring Him there. This means far-flung lands, yes, but it also means our own neighborhoods and homes, classrooms and offices.
In today's gospel Jesus tells us to "go into the world." He sends us, just as we are sent at the end of Mass by the deacon or priest. It is interesting to note that the word apostle means "messenger" or "one who is sent." We have been sent by Christ. We have a mission to be His apostles.
Even more interesting is the instruction He gives us in our first reading from Acts to be His witnesses. It is from the Greek word for "witness" that we get our word martyr. Being a witness for Christ involves sacrifice. For many in the early Church this meant giving up your life as a witness to the faith. For an increasing amount of Christians in the world today it means the same thing. But even for those of us who do not face death for our belief in Jesus, we can still expect to clash often with the world around us as we strive to be true to our Christian calling. That clash can even be against our own comforts and desires that stand in the way of our calling. Either way, if your Christian faith does not make you feel at least a little challenged each day, how effective a witness are you being?
This is our job description as Christians. We are sent into the world to be His witnesses. We are called to be apostles and martyrs. So why are we standing here looking at the sky? We have our orders. Let's get to work.