Probably more than a few of you out in church today have worked retail at some point in your life. For me, I used to work at HobbyTown USA, selling model trains, plastic models, rockets, and R/C cars. It was a pretty fun job, but as with any retail job, it could get very long, so by the end of the day, my coworkers and I would be watching the clock, just waiting for that moment of joy, where we could flip the lock on the front door. The attitude was, “Well, I’ve done what I had to do, and now I’m out of here.” And by the time 10:00 hit, I was long gone.
I think it can be easy for us to see the Ascension in the same way. We might think that it’s basically the end of the Jesus story, that he came what he had to do, and now that it’s done, he’s out of here. But when we begin to think that way, if we believe Jesus is gone and leaves the rest to us, Christianity becomes a religion based on the past. We remember the things that Jesus did, and we try to do the same thing. There’s nothing wrong with following his example, obviously, and each of us should strive to do that. But really, the Ascension doesn’t signify the end, but the beginning.
Jesus didn’t finish his work and leave, disconnecting from us and leaving us to dwell in the past, in the way things used to be. He rose to heaven so that he could be infinitely present to us all. He rose to heave so that he could lead us there and be with us forever. He rose so he could give us the commission to go out and spread this good news. If he were just leaving us, don’t you think the disciples, having just watched Jesus disappear into the clouds, would just say, “Oh. Well, that was cool,” and just go back to being fishermen? Instead, they were supercharged, and in a sense, went on the offensive, with such zeal as to transform the world.
Jesus tells us that his followers will pick up serpents in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it won’t harm them. I guess I must have slept through that class in seminary or something. Please don’t go out to the zoo and just start grabbing snakes, or consume rat poison when you get home. What this passage is intending to show us is that with that continuing relationship with Christ, one that is not as much physical or corporeal, but spiritual, we have the power to overcome the evil that gets in our way. The snake in a sense signifies the ancient serpent from Genesis that brought sin into the world. And the poison represents the sin that corrupts and slowly kills its victims, without them even noticing. But with Christ, we’re no longer afraid of those things. When we stay connected with Christ, we conquer the anger, and the impatience, and the addictions, and the lusts, and the hatred that poisons our lives. We have no need to fear them, just as the disciples had no need to fear serpents.
When Christ rose to heaven, he didn’t take his disciples with him. They didn’t grab onto his feet and get dragged to heaven with him. Instead, he entrusted his mission to their care, and the Church continues that mission even until today! As the Church today reminds us of that mission and encourages us to take it up with renewed enthusiasm, let us make a commitment to stay close in relationship with Jesus. Let’s renew our commitment today to daily, heartfelt prayer. Let’s renew our commitment today to never stop studying the great treasure of our Catholic faith. Let’s renew our commitment to be generous in supporting the poor and helpless. Let’s renew our commitment today to make frequent and sincere use of the sacraments – those gifts that Christ died to give to us – especially the Eucharist and Confession. And then, tied in a deep relationship with the glorified, risen, and ascended Jesus, let us join the apostles, and go on the offensive.