To the ends of the earth

No matter what the Gospel says, picking up snakes is never going to be part of my mission plan. Now that I think about it, I'm also pretty reluctant to pick fights with demons, so the commentaries that say Mark didn't really write this ending to his Gospel offer me a welcome justification for avoiding those adventures. Most scholars think that the Gospel of Mark ended at Verse 8 of Chapter 16, which states that the women who discovered Jesus' empty tomb "said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."

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Solemnity of the
Ascension of the Lord
Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47
Ephesians 1:17-23
Matthew 28: 19a20b (Alleluia)
Mark 16:15-20
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:15-17, 20a20c-26
Psalm 103
1 John 4:11-16 (Alleluia)
John 14:18
John 17:11b-19

Reading that is depressing. Choosing the path of frightened inaction may feel safer, but ultimately I know that timid silence is no better than snake charming as a strategy for discipleship.

The celebration of Christ's ascension focuses our attention on just exactly what Christians are to do now that the historical Jesus is no longer with us. This is the disciples' introduction to the life we live: believing in Christ without having known the historical Jesus.

To my mind, the best Ascension story comes from Acts. To start with, Luke recaps his whole Gospel in a few opening lines reviewing Jesus' last 40 days on earth. He describes Jesus' post-Resurrection activity as "giving instructions through the Holy Spirit."

In this, we see that Jesus was taking the disciples through a process, rather than teaching them a doctrine. The end of Luke's Gospel indicates that the teaching of those 40 days was a process of recapping all their time together, revisiting every conversion Jesus had called for from the beginning.

This was a process that didn't end with the Resurrection or even the Ascension, but which would only come to completion through the work of the Holy Spirit.

At the end of the Easter appearances, Luke depicts the disciples being as much in need of learning as they ever were. As if they hadn't comprehended anything Jesus had been teaching for three years and 40 days, they asked him how soon all their dreams for the future would come true. Jesus patiently avoided their question and tried for the last time on earth to reorient them. "You will get it, you will understand what real power is, when you receive the Holy Spirit."

There are many ways that we could describe what Jesus wanted his disciples and their successors to understand. Paul said it in Ephesians 1 when he prayed that the eyes of our minds would be enlightened by the Spirit, who offers wisdom and revelation. Of course, that very prayer is a reminder that we are not often sources of wisdom, much less revelation.

Paul stated the same idea as an evangelical mandate in Ephesians 4 when he called on Christians to "live a life worthy of the calling you have received." Here, too, the very idea of "calling" urges us beyond all pretensions to autonomy. As Paul reminds us, we receive our call in community, where each is gifted and we are all called to the same hope.

When Luke describes Jesus' last earthly activities and ascension, the final instruction to the disciples is that they should wait for the coming of the Spirit. When he disappeared and they were sky-gazing, two men in white appeared and questioned why they were just standing around staring into the void.

That question brought their attention back to earth, where they were to pick up the task of being witnesses -- a task they have handed on to us.

The Ascension might be our most whimsical feast. The story has nothing of the heaviness we heard at the Last Supper, when Jesus spoke of going away and being lifted up. When we look to the disciples as role models, we can be encouraged by their never-ending need to learn and be reconverted to Jesus' message.

We know they did better than what Mark reported of the silent, frightened women, yet we remember that as so many of them were martyred, faith did not deliver them from every danger.

Perhaps this is our day to remember all that the Easter season has been. It's a chance to recap our moments of encounter with Christ and our own calls to conversion. There's no reason we can't take time to do our own sky-gazing, knowing that there's more out there than a void. Nobody can tell us that we have to handle snakes, but if we are open, the Spirit will lead us to be witnesses from wherever we are standing to the ends of the earth.

[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She is a freelance writer and executive director of FUVIRESE USA, a charitable foundation that supports work with people with disabilities in Ecuador.]

This story appeared in the May 8-21, 2015 print issue under the headline: To the ends of the earth .

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