The Ascension and the Power of the Spirit

After the hectic end of a hectic school year, I return to this website.

ascensionLast Sunday (or, some places, the Thursday before) we celebrated the feast of the Ascension.  It is in a sense the culmination of the Easter season.  The whole Easter season is the passage from the Resurrection of Christ, the firstfruits, to Pentecost, in which the power of Christ is given to his Church.  This is the whole Christian mystery: the power of Christ is given over to his body, the Church.


The first reading, the beginning of of the Acts of the Apostles, has three key moments.

First, it says, “wait.” “Wait for the promise of the Father . . . in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”  The waiting is key, because it manifests that the power is not theirs, but his.  It is not that the Church is automatically holy – our holiness is a gift from Christ.  At that first Pentecost and again and again in our lives, Christ makes us wait, to experience that it is a gift.

Next, it says, “to the ends of the earth.”  “You will receive power . . . and you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth.”  Christ, who is the fullness of God, wants to fill the world with his power.  This transition to Pentecost is precisely so that the power of God which was localized in that one man can spread out to the Church throughout the world.  Christ’s body is no longer in just one place, it is everywhere, throughout time – and filled with the same power of his divinity that was present in Christ “under Pontius Pilate.”

And third, it says he “will return” – “in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”  It is another variation on the “waiting.”  We wait for his fullness, wait for his kingdom, wait to see him face to face – but as we wait, his power is at work in us, to build up a worldwide Church that longs for him.


Our Gospel reading in this year of Mark was the end of Mark’s Gospel.  “Go into the whole world,” Jesus tells his disciples, “and proclaim the gospel to every creature.  Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”

His power in the disciples makes them witnesses: they can speak of him because he lives in them.  And they make his power available to all: “whoever believes.”  Faith is necessary: to know Christ, to know him as Savior.  The power flows only from him.  And yet that power is available to the whole world, “whoever believes” – even “to every creature.”


Mark adds a strange section, one of the strangest in the New Testament: “in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages.  They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.  They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

The first thing to know is that the first generations actually did these things.  In Acts 28, for example, “when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand . . . .  he should have swollen, or fallen dead suddenly: but after they looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god” (Acts 28:3, 6).

God manifests his spiritual power in physical ways: shows the resurrection of the soul through the resurrection of the body, the giving of the Spirit through physical flames, the power of his witnesses through miracles of serpents and deadly drinks.  These aren’t the point, and so they don’t always happen, but they do serve to show the reality of his power.

But these things point to our spiritual gifts.  We may not be bitten by physical vipers, but the world attacks us in many ways – and the power of Christ, only the power of Christ, lets us pass through unharmed.  We are given many poisoned cups; the world often tries to kill us; but through the power of Christ, and only through his power, we are saved.  These signs make clear to us that it is not our cleverness – no cleverness can save you from physical poison, and no cleverness can save you from spiritual poison.  But Christ is in us.  That’s the point!


The readings are too rich, and we have not the space to consider the readings (there are a couple options) from Ephesians, Paul’s fabulous letter on the spiritual nature of the Church.  Let us only say: it is the Spirit of Christ who builds the Church.  The Spirit who saves us from poison also builds up the faith, the various ministries which give us hope, and the unity in love which is the Church.  This is no natural body, but the power of Christ at work in us who believe.

How is Christ calling you to “wait” for his power to descend on you?

The Ascension: The Power of Jesus

ascension“Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” the two men dressed in white ask the Apostles at the end of our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. That’s the question for us today on the Feast of the Ascension. Why are we celebrating this feast, “looking at” Jesus going into the sky? The answer to this question, as the answer to the men dressed in white, begins with knowing that looking at the sky really isn’t the point.

There’s a parallel at the beginning of the reading. “He presented himself alive to them by many proofs.” The word “proof” points us to something. The miracles, and even his appearance, were not ends in themselves. They were there to prove something else: his power over death, and his divinity. We miss the point if we just focus on the miracles.

Then he tells them, “wait for the promise of the Father . . . . In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” The language is vividly Trinitarian, and he points to the deeper miracle, which is not his ability to rise from the dead, find miraculous catches of fish, or rise into the air. The deeper miracle is his ability to share with us the divine life, the Spirit of God.


They ask, “are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He says, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” Yes, he is restoring the kingdom, but this “kingdom” is way greater than the earthly kingdom they expect. The new kingdom will be their transformation by the divine life he gives to them.

This will extend far beyond the earthly limits of Israel. The new Israel will go “to the ends of the earth.” The “power” they will receive is way beyond earthly power.

Paul tells us more about it in our reading from the letter to the Ephesians. “The Father of glory” – notice again the Trinitarian language – will “give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him.” That’s the outcome. If you’re looking for political power and earthly miracles, maybe this seems disappointing. But knowledge of the Father is infinitely more, takes us infinitely deeper, than any earthly ambition.

“The eyes of your hearts” will “be enlightened.” We will “know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory . . . and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe.”


This is the point of the Ascension. Christ exits the earthly realm – and carries us into the heavenly. He goes from the limits of earthly existence, where we see his earthly face and his earthly miracles in a particular earthly place, to the ultimate extension, both throughout the whole world, and beyond the world into the life of God.

Our readings over and over again use the word “power” and other related words. “The surpassing greatness of his power . . . his great might.” But this is the power of sitting “at his right hand in the heavens,” entering into the presence of God. This goes “far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion”: the true kingdom is so much more than the earthly things we dream of.

And though we can speak of it as “putting all things under his feet,” it goes much deeper to say he is “head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” “Who fills all things in every way” speaks of God himself, the Creator. The awesome mystery is that he gives himself to the Church, calls us beyond the limits of creation, into the Trinitarian life of the Creator – which is supreme, infinite love.


The Gospel reading from the end of Matthew is short and to the point. “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.” Perhaps the words are too familiar. But the promise is that his “power” extends “to all nations,” so that we can share in the Trinitarian life.

Are our ambitions high enough? Do we recognize how powerful Christ is? Powerful enough not only to raise the dead, but to share with us the divine life.