The Ascension of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ into heaven is perhaps, no, is definitely the most convoluted event in salvation history. All four evangelists take note of Jesus’ return to his Father, but the variety of circumstances attending the event is surprising. St. John seems to have Jesus ascend to the Father immediately after the Resurrection. When Mary Magdalene reaches out to embrace her Risen Lord, Christ famously cautions her, “Noli me tangere!” – “Don’t touch me!” He then explains that he has not yet arisen to this Father. Yet later that evening he is perfectly relaxed with his gathered apostles. The ascension has apparently been accomplished.
St. Mark also might have the ascension take place on Easter but, by his reckoning, it was Sunday evening after he had appeared to Mary Magdalene and the two Emmaus disciples during the day. “Later, as the eleven were at table, he appeared to them and rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart because they had not believed those who saw him after he had been raised…then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God.”
Saint Matthew in his Gospel account and St. Luke in the Acts, while they respect the traditional 40-day lapse, in their own way contribute to the confusion. In their accounts, the locations of Christ’s final farewell vary by about 90 miles! St. Matthew clearly places the solemn event in the Holy Land’s northern region: “The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.” St. Luke’s Gospel account on the other hand has the entire transaction occur (possibly on Easter Sunday night!) about two miles outside the city of Jerusalem: “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, raised his hands, and blessed them. As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven.” The opening verses of St. Luke’s Acts of Apostles also relate Christ’s final appearance as occurring nearby the capital city but after he had appeared to them during 40 days: “While meeting with them, he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem…When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.”
While the exact time and the definite location might be up in the air (no pun intended), the perennial challenge of Ascension Day is undeniable: Evangelization. The mandate is very clear in St. Matthew’s account to be heard this Sunday: “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.”
St. Luke concurs in the first verses of Acts: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” St. John recalls the challenge Christ voiced on Easter Sunday night: “Jesus said to them again, ’Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And St. Mark for his part heartily concurs: “He said to them, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
While the mandate is clear, the meaning of evangelization in the post-Vatican II Church can be elusive. In the document Nostra Aetate, the fathers of the Council famously formalized an expanded attitude of dialogue and respect toward the major non-Christian religions of the world: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. The Council even went so far as recognize the possible good will of agnostics and atheists.
In its Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, the Council turned the Church’s rhetoric away from schismatics and heretics and spoke of Protestants as separated brethren. The Council’s willingness to see good in all peoples and to enhance and encourage the good they already possess is the key to modern missionary work. Pope Francis recently observed that evangelization “does not begin by seeking to convince others, but by bearing witness each day to the beautiful love that has watched over us and lifted us back up.”
While certainly welcoming the conversion of many to the fullness of Catholic Christianity, the true evangelist must also fervently strive for the growth of all — believers and non-believers alike — knowing that all growth in the truth will eventually lead all humanity to God who is himself the fullness of truth.
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