The Ascension of the Lord
The beginning of the Acts of the Apostles: “In the first book, Theopolis, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.”
Strangely, the first book, according to Luke, was his Gospel, not the Acts of the Apostles. So why did he write “In the first Book?” Because Luke realized that the end of the Gospel story is not the end of God’s salvific plan. As Luke noted in the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus’ mission and presence did not end with His Ascension into heaven. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, St. Luke knew there was more to come, specifically through the lives of the Apostles and those throughout history who have followed their witness.
Jesus’ Ascension into heaven presupposes that the divine plan of salvation is meant to continue seamlessly, even without his physical presence. How Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead is the blueprint his disciples are encouraged to follow. By following Jesus’ lead, his disciples participate in the world’s salvation.
The plan of reuniting humanity with God through Jesus was always meant as a participation initiated as an invitation to share his divine life, an invitation never imposed because God never thwarts a person’s free will. This comes with a caveat: those who accept the invitation do so out of love and not through compulsion.
In honoring free will, God’s plan to save his creation was to do what no ordinary sinful person could do, atone for sin through Jesus, who paid the price so we could live. When Jesus ascended into heaven, his final step of salvation was completed opening the channel between God and his creatures.
How do we know this is true? Because of the Acts of the Apostles. Their newfound belief in Jesus as the Son of God after his resurrection was not a static belief but one which, through their actions and deeds, proclaimed the salvation afforded to humanity through Jesus.
For the post-resurrected disciples, the story wasn’t over with the death of Jesus. Easter Sunday is proof that death is not the end as once thought. Nor has the revelation of salvation been exhausted with the risen Lord’s appearance to his disciples. Even his Ascension into heaven, where his physical presence is no longer with his disciples, is the story of salvation concluded.
The story of salvation continues beyond the death of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, and even the Ascension of Jesus. The story of God’s presence never really ends. At least, Divine Providence would have it that way. And this recognition is not Luke’s alone –– though he is the only one to continue the story in writing with a second book, a second volume.
Listen to how the other Synoptic Gospel accounts end:
From St. Mark: “So then, the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God. But the Eleven went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord continued to work with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.”
From St. Matthew: “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.” Despite being words that end the Gospel accounts, these are hardly words that finish a story. Indeed, as with so many other significant events in salvation history, the Ascension is not about an ending but a continuation.
We might even say a new beginning. And what begins with the Ascension? The Ascension is the start of those remaining to become the witnesses of the one who died, was raised, and has ascended to the Father’s right hand forever. It is the beginning of a new and heightened importance for those who believe that the one crucified has definitively shown us the path to eternal life. The body is called to follow in hope where the Head has gone in glory.
The mission that the earthly Jesus began is left to his followers to carry on. The ones who remain are entrusted with what God himself commenced. And there is never an ending to what God himself begins. What begins with God is forever; it is forever in God. And God does not come to an end.
The Ascension is not about an ending but about a forever present. We can now be with God without any barriers. We can glean from the Ascension that the opportunity for humanity, once estranged from God, has the potential to live together with him forever.
And what a wonderful place to be.
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