Date Published: May 29, 2017
Ascension A (Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47; Eph 1:17-23; Mt 28:16-20)
The Gospel readings for Sundays and weekdays for the last two weeks before the Ascension of the Lord were taken from Jesus’ farewell discourse (Jn 14-17), in which the Lord encourages his disciples to remain steadfast in proclaiming the Gospel after his imminent departure. I would like to highlight two of the significant points in the Lord’s farewell message which are also emphasized in the first reading and the Gospel today, namely: (1) Jesus’ promise that the disciples would never be left orphaned since the Holy Spirit would guide them (Jn 14:16); and (2) his enduring prayer for the disciples who are sent out into the world (Jn 17:18).
In the first reading, the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke recounts what he has already narrated at the end of his Gospel (Lk 24:50-53)—the ascension of the Lord into heaven, which underscores the two significant points found in the farewell discourse. Before being lifted up to heaven, Jesus assures his disciples: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Moreover, while the disciples were intently gazing at the sky, the two men in white told them: “Why are you standing there looking at the sky. This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11). In other words, the disciples are told not simply to behold the glorious ascension of the Lord and to wait idly for his return, but to bear witness to the teachings and examples of the risen Jesus to the world with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel reading, which recounts the Jesus’ great commissioning of his disciples, echoes the core message of the Ascension in two ways. First, Matthew specifies that the number of disciples who were sent out for the mission was eleven. More than the grim reminder of Judas’ betrayal and suicide, the number eleven, in contrast to the number twelve, symbolizes imperfection and vulnerability. Most of the disciples were just Galilean peasants. Inspired by their experience of the risen Jesus and guided by the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 6-7), however, they were able to attract others to become followers of the Lord and to spread the faith throughout the wider expanse of Roman Empire. We—the present-day Christians—are also weak and divided in many ways. Like the eleven disciples, we worship and believe in the Lord but at times we doubt our faith. Through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we remain hopeful that we can keep on bearing witness to the risen Lord in the midst of the secular and sometimes apathetic environment.
Second, assuring the disciples of his presence, Jesus commands them to “go  and make disciples of all the nations….” Obedient to the exhortation of the Lord, the early Christians went all over the Roman Empire to proclaim the Gospel, and they made new disciples who would continue to bear witness to places and peoples to whom the Lord was not yet known. By virtue of our baptism, all of us are missionaries. All of us are called to go and make disciples not just of our friends and families but also of strangers and refugees whose beliefs or worldviews may be radically different from ours.
How should we go about fulfilling the Lord’s commission in our present-day context? First and foremost, we must become or remain receptive to the presence of the Holy Spirit who will console and guide us in times of pains and uncertainties. Second, we should “go,” i.e., we must take the initiative in reaching out to others both in more organized and ordinary ways like sincere smiles and friendly gestures or conversations. Lastly, we should “make disciples.” We must bear in mind that disciples are not born but are made or trained. This does not suggest that we should force our faith or point of view upon others. We can “make disciples” more effectively by living out the Gospel message in our day-to-day activities. Once others notice that our ways of doing things reflect the words and deeds of our Lord Jesus, they themselves may decide to become his disciples. As the quote commonly attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi goes: “We must preach the Gospel at all times and use words only when it is necessary.” (Fr. Roy Ervite, OSA)