Today is the 40th day after Easter, the traditional date for celebrating the feast of the Ascension. In many dioceses, the Ascension is transferred to the 7th Sunday of Easter – next Sunday, May 28. Here in the Archdiocese of New York we keep the traditional 40th day after Easter celebration. The feast ranks as one of our annual solemnities — Christmas, Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost.
This feast combines a sense of finality with anticipation of great things to come. The Ascension marks the end of a series of post-Easter appearances of the Risen Lord to his disciples. Now they are to become his presence in the world commissioned to continue his work and mission. Think of all the paintings we have of disciples looking up as Jesus is absorbed into the sky. And do we remember the custom prior to 1962 when the Easter candle was extinguished right after the reading of the Gospel to symbolize Christ’s physical presence no longer among us? Now the Easter candle remains lit until Pentecost emphasizing the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit within the members of the Church.
Every celebration of the Ascension has two accounts of Jesus’ departure. The first reading is from the Acts of the Apostles, and the gospel reading is from Matthew, Mark or Luke depending on the year. Today’s gospel reading is from Matthew who places this encounter with the risen Jesus in Galilee and not in Jerusalem. This evangelist wants the mission of the disciples to begin where Jesus had begun. And it occurs on a mount to tell us once again that this event is important. Important proclamations of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel occur on a mount. The sending of the disciples is a decisive event for them and for us. This passage in Matthew is often called “the Great Commission.”
Having responded to the call of Jesus, listened to his words, witnessed his miracles and experienced the presence of the Risen Lord, they are being entrusted with a mission. Are they ready? In Matthew 28:17 we read: “they doubted”. Those about to be entrusted with this mission have doubts and uncertainties even as they have faith and good will. Those about to take their first steps into a world without the physical presence of their teacher and mentor are assured “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). The Gospel of Matthew closes with the same promise found in its first chapter — Emmanuel is “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). Let us dwell on this abiding presence as we too await the Spirit of wisdom and truth. Imagine the words of today’s second reading from Ephesians resounding in the hearts of all disciples who prepare to receive the gifts of the Spirit: “May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of glory, give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him. May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call…” (Ephesians 1:17-18)
—Sister Dominica Rocchio, SC
Sr. Dominica, most recently a member of the Congregation’s leadership team, has ministered in education as a teacher, principal, and in administrative positions in the archdioceses of New York and Newark, NJ. In Newark, she served as Superintendent of Schools and Secretary for Education. At present, she works on Special Projects for the Congregation.