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"Mission and Presence" - A Scripture Reflection for the Ascension of the Lord

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by Stephen Bevans, SVD | May 28, 2017

"Mission and Presence" - A Scripture Reflection for the Ascension of the Lord

May 28, 2017: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9; Eph 1:17-23; Mt 28:16-20

Today’s feast of the Ascension of the Lord might strike us at first glance as a feast of farewell and absence. This certainly seems to be the case as we read the first reading from Acts. It had been forty days since the day that Jesus was raised from the dead, and the reading notes that during this time Jesus appeared to them again and again, proving that he was indeed alive, speaking to them about his dream of God’s Reign, and telling them to wait for the Holy Spirit, with whom they would be baptized. And then, as he gives them a final commission to be his witnesses, "he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight."

That final commission, however—expressed in different words in the gospel reading, but basically the same commission—contains a hint that the feast is not really about farewell and absence at all, but rather about Mission and Presence. Jesus is going away—yes—but as he goes away he calls on his disciples to continue his work, and promises that he will be with them every step of the way.

We celebrate today, therefore, the great task of Mission that we have been given as Jesus’ disciples. Although Jesus has been "lifted up" our of our sight, his mission—of witnessing to and proclaiming God’s love and gentle power, God’s mercy and forgiveness, God’s identification with the poor and marginalized—continues with us. The angel was right. Don’t just stand there. Witness! Don’t just stand there. Move! Go! Don’t just stand there. Share the good new!. Make disciples! And not just here in Jerusalem. Go beyond—to Judea, to Samaria, to the ends of the earth, to every people, to every nation!

This is our fundamental call as Christians—to be, as Pope Francis puts it, "missionary disciples." This is not a call to only some Christians, a special, exotic vocation to be missionaries. This is a call to all of us, wherever we are. We are to be, as Paul puts it in the second reading, Christ’s body. Sometimes we speak of the ordained priest as "another Christ," but this not exactly correct. Each of us, every one of us, is called to be another Christ. We are all called to continue Christ’s mission. As St. Teresa of Avila put it famously, Christ has no other hands but ours.

As we do this, however, we will never be alone. Jesus assures us that he will be with us always, until the end of time. This is the other thing that we celebrate today—Presence. Jesus knows that we can’t continue his mission of service, witness and proclamation by ourselves. He promises us that he will always be there, within us, beside us. In the second reading Paul prays for the Ephesians that they might really know the God they believe in—that they eyes of their hearts should be enlightened. That prayer is certainly one for us as well—that we may know that God is a God who never abandons us, no matter what our doubts, no matter what our difficulties, no matter how many failures we may experience along the way.

The feast of the Ascension is a special feast, therefore, for us who are "Catholics on Call." It is a feast that celebrates that call, that vocation to make a difference in our world and in our church—to be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth, to all nations, beginning in the Jerusalem of where we are right now. And it is a feast that celebrates God’s faithfulness as we try to respond to that call. God does not leave us alone. God in Jesus is always by our side.

As we celebrate this feast of the Ascension, perhaps we can reflect on the beautiful words of Rory Cooney’s song, "I Am For You," words we have sung at many Catholics on Call Young Adult Conferences—here are the third and fourth verses. I think they capture well the feast’s themes of Mission and Presence:

There was a man who walked in the storm
Caught in between the waves and the lightning.
Sharing his bread with those cast aside,
Healing by touch the lost and the dying.
Sending us forth he says to his friends
"I am for you, I am for you to the end."

We are anointed servants of God;
We have been born again of the Spirit.
We are the word God speaks to the world,
Freedom and light to all who will hear it.
So let us be the Word of the Lord:
"I am for you, I am for you evermore."

The above image is from the Public Domain.

Author information Stephen Bevans, SVD

Steve Bevans is Professor Emeritus at Catholic Theological Union and the Faculty Moderator for Catholics on Call. He is a Roman Catholic priest in the Society of the Divine Word, an international missionary congregation, and served for nine years (1972-1981) as a missionary in the Philippines.

His publications include: Models of Contextual Theology (2002), Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (2004, with Roger Schroeder), Evangelization and Freedom (2009, with Jeffrey Gros), and Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (2009).

He is past president of the American Society of Missiology (2006) and past member of the board of directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America (2007-2009). In 2009 he was visiting lecturer at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne, Australia, and in 2013 he was the only Catholic to speak at a Plenary at the Tenth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, Korea.

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