Jesus Christ Himself is that bridge, a bridge uniting our mortal life on this earth with our eternal life in the Kingdom of God.
In the readings of today’s Mass, we hear the story of the ascension twice, once from the Acts of the Apostles, and then from the Gospel of Mark.
In the Book of Acts we read:
At the moment on the ascension, as Jesus was in the midst of teaching His disciples, he began to ascend, and the clouds of heaven hid him from sight. The Apostles stood dumbfounded, staring into heaven – one can almost imagine their jaws dropped open and the drool dripping down their cheeks.
In the midst of their dumbfoundedness, two men dress in white – two angels, two seraphim – stood before them and said:
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand and gape at the sky?”
As if to say:
“You heard Jesus! You have your mission. You have your instructions. You have much work to do now on earth. Stop staring at the sky and start to do good!”
“Go out into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature!”
This is, explicitly, the mission of the Apostles: “Go out into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature!”
This is also, explicitly, our mission today: “Go out into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature!”
For this reason I say, today is our feast it is the anniversary of our missioning.
Brothers, let us begin to do good,
for up to now we have done nothing!
St. Francis of Assisi, Testament
The Feast of the Ascension is also our feast because we ascend with Christ. Today we celebrate that Jesus ascended into heaven, and even now our hearts ascend with Him! We share in the mission of Christ on earth, and therefore we share in the glory of Christ in heaven.
St. Augustine went on to say:
Even if here and now, our earthly bodies do not share completely in the glory of the resurrection, yet our earthly bodies do share completely in the mission of Christ upon earth, and therefore we begin to live in the Kingdom of God even now! Because Jesus Christ is the Kingdom of God.
If we life in Christ, we are living in the Kingdom of God, because the Kingdom of God is Jesus Christ. We sometimes spend a lot of time trying to “define” the Kingdom of God, which is a shame, because the Kingdom of God is not a place or a thing or a condition or a program – it is a person: Jesus Christ.
Even the Apostles fell for this temptation. In the Acts of the Apostles, the very last thing the Apostles say to Jesus here on Earth was a silly question showing that they still did not understand:
Is it now that you will establish the kingship again in Israel?
Is it now that you will intervene with divine power in our trivial worldly politics and support our political party? Will you pull the nation of Israel out of the multi-national, multi-cultural Roman Empire and make it into a sovereign nation-state with a royal government and great wealth?
Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical “On the Mission of the Redeemer” (1990), takes up this question of the Apostles and puts it on us, because his encyclical was also about the mission of the Church in our day. The Pope wrote:
“Christ not only proclaimed the kingdom, but in him the kingdom itself became present and was fulfilled. This happened not only through his words and his deeds, but above all, the kingdom is made manifest in the very person of Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, who came 'to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many' (Mk 10:45)." The kingdom of God is not a concept, a doctrine, or a program subject, but it is before all else a person with the face and name of Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the invisible God.”
The Pope goes on to say that Catholics of every age fall prey to the same temptation as the Apostles. Perhaps because of our impatience with a Messiah we cannot see with earthly eyes and who seems to delay His coming in glory, we turn to other messiahs. We turn to some politician or to some Rockstar or to some celebrity. We seek the Kingdom of God in the world of art and entertainment, in politics and diplomacy, in science and academics, in business and wealth, even in clerical structures and church programs. But these are not the messiah! Only Jesus is!
So back to St. Augustine –
St. Augustine went on to tell the newly baptized that Jesus, in His ascension, united us forever with our true destiny in the Kingdom of God, if we will but accept it. He is the bridge between our mortal life on earth and our immortal life in Heaven if we will but walk the bridge. We – as Christ’s Church – are the very Body of Christ on this earth. It begins with our baptism, is nurtured by the sacraments, and finds its fulfillment in union with Christ.
We have our mission!
We have our instructions!
We have much work to do on this earth!
We cannot spend time staring blankly into heaven – now we must begin to do good!
I have been doing all things unholy.
If God can work through me, he can work through anyone!
St. Francis of Assisi
Note on sources:
Most of my sermon was taken from St. Augustine, Sermon on the Ascension of the Lord (PL 2:494-495). This sermon is part of the Office of Readings for the Ascension, and has therefore been read by every religious every year for centuries.
Vatican II, Ad Gentes Divinitus: Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity (1965)
Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio: Encyclical Letter on the Church's Missionary Mandate (December 1990)