There and back again

Mark 16:15-20

Did the disciples of Jesus really think it would be better for them if Jesus left them? Did they remember that he also said he would always be with them? What were their lives of prayer like after his Ascension? And their lives of ministry and service on his behalf — did they discover and rediscover him in striking and special ways?

There are many ideas and questions that invite us to probe more profoundly the mystery of Jesus’ Ascension. The success and the depth of his efforts to teach the disciples can be presumed. He clearly got their attention and conveyed to them a great deal of scriptural context and explanations for all that occurred in his life and ministry and, in particular, in his hour. We can tell that the disciples were characteristically slow to put it all together. We also can find ample evidence that they were at last entirely convinced and became courageously convincing in their words and deeds — once the Holy Spirit came to them.

In St. Mark’s version of the Ascension event we find Jesus emphasizing the activity they are to undertake in his name to every corner of the world. We know that they did not begin this work of preaching and converting right at the moment of his Ascension. This Sunday’s text, however, makes it seem that way. He tells them of the power and success they can have, then he ascends into heaven while they watch. We find no indication that they were saddened by this. It would seem that they might be less than anxious to “lose” him especially when we think of how blessed those days and encounters with him after his resurrection were. We might conclude that they were still somewhat afraid in his absence to do what he told them to do. After all, the next days of prayer (also according to his instructions) were accomplished in a place shut off from the world.

Given these realities we discover a group of blessed and chosen disciples who are well prepared to transform a world sorely in need of a good Christian transformation. The best teacher made them ready and commissioned them. Having inspired them and given them every tool he permits them one more opportunity to “come away for a while” to be with him — except for the little detail of his Ascension “taking” him from them. This new way of life for them corresponds to the only way we, in our day, have ever known. Without seeing him we believe him and follow him. Without hearing his voice we can proclaim him to others. Of course, we, like the disciples, need the convincing that the Holy Spirit brings. Adding the Pentecost event to the Ascension story gives us all we need to join the Lord’s work of reaching his people everywhere.

We can imagine the persuasiveness of the disciples driving out demons and speaking in foreign languages and handling serpents and surviving poison attempts and curing the sick. The most impressive thing about what they did is found in the reason for it — “… these signs will accompany those who believe.” There is a dramatic difference between following Jesus out into the main square to hear him preach and walking out there oneself to preach in his name. A big and dramatic difference — unless one is totally aware that he actually is there too.

The mystery of the Ascension is the mystery of the Lord’s presence with us when we cannot see him. It is a mystery that is about acting based on actual belief in what he predicted, explained and promised. “So the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God.”

We are inclined to cheer for him and to thank him. We also know that he did not take his seat in glory and then forget about us. He was and is here with us even while he is there in heaven. “ ... the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.” Blessed are we because they believed without seeing.

Fr. Zuberbueler is pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018