Sunday, May 16, is the Seventh Sunday of Easter. Mass Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47:2-3, 6-9; Ephesians 4:1-13; Mark 16:15-20.
It’s the Seventh Sunday of Easter, but most readers of this will be celebrating the Solemnity of the Ascension. The Ascension took place 40 days after Easter, which would place it on this past Thursday, but in most of the U.S. (except Nebraska and the Northeast) the observation is moved to Sunday, preempting the Seventh Sunday of Easter, which is unfortunate in some respects. Regardless, the Ascension is a glorious and under-celebrated holy day. I suggest making a big deal of it, especially if you have kids; maybe taking a nice after-Mass picnic meal on a hike to the top of a nearby hill to make it memorable.
Our first reading is the account of the Ascension itself (Acts 1:1-11). Our Mass translation says these things took place when Jesus was “meeting with them,” but the Greek phrase means “eating with them.” In Luke 22:16, 18 Jesus said he would not eat and drink again until the Kingdom had come, so the fact that he is eating and drinking with them here is an indication of the arrival of the Kingdom (see also Acts 10:41). The disciples ask, “Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?” Jesus answers by telling them not when, but how, the Kingdom will be restored. They will be witnesses (literally martyrs) from “Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, to the ends of the earth” (i.e., the Gentiles). This sequence represents the concentric circles of the ancient Kingdom of David (David’s city, tribe, nation and vassals, respectively). The apostles’ preaching will reestablish the Kingdom of David, which has become the Kingdom of God, appearing visibly as the Church. As Catholic Christians we do not embrace the view, popular among American Protestants, that Jesus is going to return and reign on earth over the state of Israel. Jesus’ kingdom is the Church, all those who accept his rule and submit themselves to the Son of David.
The core of this Kingdom does and always will consist of descendants of ancient Israel: Christ himself, the Blessed Mother, John the Baptist, the apostles and the early saints. Around them have gathered numberless people from Israel but also from all the nations.
And the kingdom continues to grow in our own day.
The Gospel is Mark’s version of the famous “Great Commission,” better know from Matthew 28:16-20: “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Go into the whole world, and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.’” This is an epic command reflecting Jesus’ cosmic kingship: He has authority over not just his disciples, but “every creature.”
The disciples are now Jesus’ princes, commissioned to spread his Kingdom to all the world.
That’s why our bishops, successors of the apostles, wear miters, which are an ancient Roman crown.
The command to “proclaim the Good News to every creature” is an interesting way to phrase the Great Commission. Are we then to preach to the whales and the pine trees? Probably not, but by saying “every creature” rather than just “every human being,” Mark indicates the cosmic effects of the Gospel: It is a message that has meaning not just for humanity, but even nature itself. Pope Francis explored this concept in his encyclical Laudato Si. At its best, the Church has also blessed the natural world, as when the patient, laboring medieval monks transformed Europe from wilderness and swamps into a garden-continent.
The end of our Gospel says of the disciples that “they went forth and preached everywhere.” This could be a summary statement of the whole history of Christianity. But is it still true? Do we still have men and women willing to risk even their lives to preach Jesus Christ to every creature? At this Sunday’s Mass, let’s pray that Jesus would bless us with a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, to enflame our hearts “to preach everywhere.”