In one of the annual preached retreats I was subjected to as a young Jesuit, the director presented a vivid picture of the ascension (long before the age of shuttle launchings). As Jesus rose heavenward, he saw Jerusalem, Nazareth, Galilee, Asia Minor, Greece and finally Rome. This is precisely what the feast is not about. What is celebrated is Jesus’ exaltation and the end of his earthly existence as a prelude to the gift of the Spirit. This exaltation embodies one of the oldest Christological confessions, Phil. 2:6-11, which speaks of one who was in the form of God, emptied himself and became obedient to death on a cross, only to be exalted and given a name at which every knee would bend and every tongue would confess as Jesus, the Lord. This is also the pattern of the theology of Luke and John.
Yet my retreat master, perhaps too taken up himself with the journey through the heavens, had a great insight. Before his departure, Jesus commissions his disciples as witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth. Jesus would see these places as the Spirit-directed church moved outward from Jerusalem. Such is the exocentric theology of Acts. In a rhythm of persecution and repeated impulses of the Spirit, the church in Acts moves from Jerusalem to Rome, where the imprisoned Paul with complete assurance and without hindrance proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught them about the Lord Jesus (28:31).
One of the major phenomena of the past 50 years has been the spread and growth of the church far beyond the confines of Luke’s vision. Jesus’ commission in Matthew to travel to the ends of the earth making disciples of all nations seems a reality. Recently I noticed that the greatest number of Jesuits in the world now live and work in India, and Asia and Africa represent areas of greatest growth. As in Acts, persecution and often violent death are the cost of faithful witness to the Gospel, especially as people speak out on behalf of the poor and marginal (another strong theme of Luke-Acts). In the United States and in the West generally, the church is preoccupied with internal problems, often of its own making. The feast of the Ascension tells us that the church must be a community in mission, guided by God’s Spirit and confident of God’s protection even amid suffering and death. But mission is not something we see by gazing beyond the horizons of our own land. It is a summons, especially to a younger generation of Catholics, to move to uncharted territory under the guidance of God’s Spirit with confidence in Jesus’ final words in Matthew, I am with you always, until the end of the age.