Year B: The Ascension of the Lord

The Ascension of Jesus

Mark 16:15-20

Jesus said to them, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: 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.” So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God. But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What personal meaning does Jesus’ ascension hold for you?
  2. What do you believe your baptism has commissioned you to do in this life?
  3. How are you personally carrying on the mission of Jesus Christ?

Biblical Context

Mark 16:15-20
Mary M. McGlone CSJ

Virtually all Catholic Scripture scholars concur that these last verses of the Gospel of Mark do not come from the hand of Mark the Evangelist. Mark ended his Gospel with the highly unsatisfactory explanation that the women fled from the empty tomb and said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. Mark used that conclusion to goad his community to proclaim the Gospel or admit that they would cower for the rest of their lives. His editors couldn’t withstand the temptation to give the Gospel a more satisfactory ending. The verses we hear today come from one of the revised endings that became a part of the final product of Mark’s Gospel. This is not to say that they lack “Gospel truth,” but only that they came after Mark finished his writing.

What these verses do is what a preacher or catechist does when preparing to summarize the Gospel in a way that seems adequate to their audience. The first part reflects the great commission in Matthew when Jesus sent the disciples to baptize in his name. The next verse echoes John 3, reminding us that God sent the Son into the world that the world might be saved and that those who refuse to believe in the Son are condemned.

In regard to the signs that will accompany believers, some like healing and exorcism were quite familiar to the disciples. Speaking in foreign languages reflects the Pentecost experience, but serpents are only mentioned in the Christian Scriptures in Luke 10:19, which promises the disciples sent on mission, that they can tread on serpents. It also recalls the serpent tempter of Genesis, and calls to mind the image of the Virgin Mary crushing the serpent’s head. The overall point is the same as found in Luke’s commissioning of the disciples: Jesus promises that nothing will harm his evangelizers, a promise that must be understood in the light of his own martyrdom. The final lines respond to Mark’s original ending, proclaiming that the disciples did indeed preach the Gospel to the world.

 Leaving and Staying

John Shea

Many years ago, when the feast of the Ascension was still Ascension Thursday, a teenager asked, “After Mass, could we get together in the parking lot with helium balloons, let them go, and sing, ‘Up, Up, and Away, in my beautiful balloon”? I was against it. But when I tried to explain my “no,” I was less than convincing. My mind was struggling with the relationship of symbolism and spiritual truth; and when the struggling mind speaks, it is usually the listeners who struggle.

Spiritual truths are often realized in an intuitive, holistic: way. However, they are expressed in images taken from other dimensions, especially from the cosmic and social dimensions. Therefore, the transcendence of God, which is intuitively realized, is expressed in the cosmic imagery of the sky, which is called heaven. This basic cosmic positioning then borrows from the social realm the idea of a king with his court. The one who sits at the right hand of the king is closest to the king. From this special place of honor, he advises the king and oversees the affairs of the kingdom. Therefore, the risen Jesus ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father, overseeing his church and their adventures in the world.

But what does this mean when the understanding of the cosmic and social realms changes? If the language of “heaven and kingly courts” becomes antiquated and/or downright wrong, is the spiritual truth it expresses lost? Do we keep the traditional language and join a conspiracy of silence that mutually agrees not to ask what it means? Do we attempt a facile and usually banal translation into contemporary language? Does the risen Jesus go “out into space” instead of “up into heaven”? Is his new position of importance and power imaged as Vice President to the President (God) or CEO to the Board Chair (God)? I don’t think so. A self-conscious use of imagery can be fun, but it does not have immediate intellectual and affective impact.

The ascension of Jesus draws on another social situation. The death of an individual, especially an important one, entails a commissioning of those left behind. Their inheritance is to continue the work of the one who began it but who is no longer present to continue it. However, when this common social situation is applied to Jesus, it is changed in two significant ways. First, Jesus does not have a death-bed commissioning. The risen Lord sends his disciples out as an act of finishing his earthly work before ascending to the Father. Second, he is leaving and he is not leaving. He is not going to be with them in the way he was with them during his life or in his risen form. But he is going to be with them.

Matthew simply states this ongoing presence. “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” But the addition of “remember” connotes that this “always” presence of the risen Lord may be easy to forget. Therefore, an intentional act of remembering has to be put in place. Mark has Jesus at the right hand of the Father in Heaven, but he is still present with his disciples. “The Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.” The disciples could preach and teach, but when the heavy lifting of signs (miracles) was needed, the Lord had to be there. Therefore, he could be present in heaven and on earth—somehow. Luke has a cleaner separation with the promise of a mediated presence. The disciples are to wait until they have been clothed with “power from on high.” This is the sending of the Spirit who will continue Jesus’ presence among his disciples. His risen form is gone, but his and the Father’s Spirit is present, doing among the disciples essentially the same work that Jesus did.

Therefore, the ascension signifies a change in how Jesus is present to his disciples. This is spelled out in some detail in the Gospel of John. (See this volume, “Easter Sunday: The Resurrection of the Lord at the Mass of Easter Day”) Mary Magdalene, consumed with grief, searches for the body of Jesus in his pre-death form. She cannot find this form, but a new form of Jesus, a form that is the result of his ascending to the Father, encounters her and calls her by name. This form of Jesus, which she calls Teacher because he is teaching her his new way of spiritual presence, tells her to “go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God'” (John 20:17) It is the ascension that connects Jesus, his Father, and the disciples. Therefore, although to literal eyes the ascension may look like losing Jesus to the sky, it is really a feast of the continuing communion of Jesus and the disciples, even though the forms of that communion have changed.

And that is why I did not think watching helium balloons rise and disappear while singing, ”Up, Up, and Away, in my beautiful balloon” was a good idea.


Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.