Gospel commentary: Who moved the mountain?

The liturgical celebration of Jesus’ Ascension has, as we know, moved around in recent years. Normally we want liturgical celebrations to move us but sometimes we move them. This year, whether it is celebrated on Thursday or Sunday, the Gospel passage for the Ascension of Jesus doesn’t speak of the Ascension. It can seem to do so and it is well-coordinated, of course, but it isn’t directly about the Ascension. Perhaps we can consider it as a practice or a simulation of the real thing, a teaching method used by Jesus to prepare His disciples.

The text we pray this week finds Jesus with His now 11 disciples on a mountain in Galilee. The event described is one that occurred after Easter week but well before Jesus ascended into Heaven. Hearing it proclaimed at Mass can make it seem like this moment coincides with the dramatic event of Jesus’ Ascension, but it does not. Instead, we join the Risen Christ with the 11 as He makes another appearance, among many others, allowing the disciples to absorb and accept His mysterious new presence. We find the familiar theme of the competing responses within the disciples of eagerness to believe and a persistent doubtfulness: “When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.”

The patience of Jesus combines with His wise (and all-knowing) way of bringing the disciples along. It is often remarked that a company’s chief executive officer would never hire the likes of these men if he or she wanted to succeed. What we can see, though, is the way Jesus gives His hand-picked leaders the preparation they need. Weeks before He “departs” from them on a mountain near Jerusalem, He continues forming them for the role they will perform in the church: “Then Jesus approached and said to them, ‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.’ ”

It is easy to imagine the many possible reactions to this mission, to this command of Jesus. Among them would be fear or nervousness that such a task is too big for them. All nations? Had they ever even visited another nation? All nations? In the remaining weeks before Jesus’ fulfilment of His promise to return to the Father and to send the Holy Spirit, the disciples continued to think about His clearly spoken mission for them. In their developing understanding of the ways of prayer, they must have found it fruitful to join any worries about their future with His final words that day on the mountain in Galilee. At their “Ascension Rehearsal” He said: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

Before their “graduation” or the “commencement” of their work on His behalf and with His invisible presence, Jesus offers them a review of past lessons. The text says they “went to Galilee to a mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.” Which mountain was it? Maybe it was the Mount of the Beatitudes, where He gave teachings that moved the people. Was it a mountain on which He had prayed often? Wherever this special moment occurred, we know that it was specifically chosen by Jesus the Lord. How well He knew His disciples. He was taking advantage of the fact that His Ascension was some weeks away. The men before Him would ponder each word He spoke to them. They would try to put everything together. In some ways they would fail, but they needed to “own it” or to make it their own.

The disciples of Jesus had exactly what they needed to begin their mission. Even their weaknesses and their ignorance were right for receiving the powerful help Jesus was promising to send in the Holy Spirit. The careful attention Jesus gives to their preparation can help us be calm as we discern His will for our own next mission for Him. We can listen for the ways He brings us back to things He has already taught us. We can trust that He will stay with us as we serve Him. He says we can move mountains. This is especially true if we return in prayer to the mountains on which He first moved us.

Fr. Zuberbueler is pastor of St. Louis Church in Alexandria.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017