Today’s gospel reading from Matthew does not mention Jesus’ ascension into Heaven but rather it completes the story of Jesus’ mission on earth, when he commanded the apostles to preach to all nations. On the other hand, the account in Acts tells how Jesus was taken up to Heaven. He was lifted up and a cloud covered him, a symbol of divine presence, indicating that the Word Incarnate was reunited with the Father. There is no contradiction between the two stories. The term ”forty” in the bible is used to indicate a significant amount of time, often one of preparation and reflection such as Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness. Here it is used as a framework for the many appearances of the Risen Lord to his friends, so that they were convinced that he was indeed alive but in a very different way.
The real farewell that Jesus made to His disciples had been at the Last Supper, most dramatically recounted in the Discourses of St John, which we have been reading at mass. There was great sorrow then. At the Ascension, however, the followers of Jesus returned to Jerusalem in great joy. They were coming to understand that Jesus now lived through them and his resurrection would be their core teaching.
“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile...” (1 Corinthians 15.17)
Jesus continues to live through us and we see this daily in the kindness of people to one another, especially in the current crisis. Next week we celebrate the birthday of our Church with the feast of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit.