We are given two accounts of our Lord’s Ascension today, and it is actually the first account from the Acts of the Apostles on which the Church has taught from antiquity that the Lord Jesus was with us on Earth for 40 days after His Resurrection. By the Church’s authority, we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord today in the Diocese of Knoxville. I would be remiss, however, if I did not point out that we can calculate the exact day of the week that the Lord’s Ascension took place. Forty days after Our Lord’s Resurrection places the Ascension of the Lord on a Thursday, which is why the Church from ancient times celebrated the Ascension on a Thursday as a Holy Day of Obligation. As the Church has authority even over the feasts and seasons of the year, we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord today…
In the first account of the Ascension from The Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke shares with us that Jesus told the Apostles that in a few days they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit, which we will celebrate next week. He also told them something else very interesting, something that we often forget. They asked him if he was going to restore the Kingdom of God to Israel, something that the Jewish people expected the Messiah to do, and which the Apostles had come to understand would signal the end of the age (cf. Matthew 24:3). Jesus’s response is perhaps one of the most telling in all of Scripture. “It is not for you to know the times and the seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.” In other words, it is not for us to be worried amongst ourselves with whether or not the end of days is coming tomorrow, next week, next year, or a hundred, or a thousand years. The Father has this under his control, and it’s not for us to speculate about that.
This is not to say that Jesus or the Apostles had nothing to say about the end of days, there are three synoptic Gospel accounts of apocalyptic discourses which Jesus gave where he described both the fall of Jewish society as the disciples knew it, and the end of the age, or the end of world as we know it. Perhaps the most famous of these discourses is Jesus’s long discourse in the 24th and 25th Chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus tells us a lot about the troubles that his followers will have to endure before the end of all things, but speaking directly of the end of the age, Jesus said that no man knows the day or the hour that He will come. He even compared the atmosphere at his return to what the world was like in the days of Noah, which is a signal from Jesus that things are not going to be very nice, especially for the true followers of the Lord. Yet, Jesus said that just as in the days of Noah, people will be eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark. In other words, people will be carrying on with daily life, no one will be expecting what is coming. (cf. Matthew 24:36-39)
Most of the Apostles expected the imminent return of Our Lord in their lifetimes, indeed the Church has traditionally taught that the “Last Days” began with the Ascension of the Lord (That is what we are really celebrating here today, the beginning of the Last Days!) but as the Church, as well as the Apostolic understanding of God’s plan began to develop, they began to see that they needed to plan for the Church to survive in a world where the Lord might not return for a very long time.
St. Peter even tells us that many people will say “the Lord delays his coming,” some will question whether his promise of return is real. Many will question, as they do, whether Jesus is real or God is real at all. Surely, we are seeing that in our own time. (cf. 2 Peter 3:3-13)
On the reverse of that, there are plenty of people-and we see them and hear them-on supposedly Christian media sources on television, on radio, on the internet, and within some of the ecclesial communities with which we are locally familiar-filling people’s minds with endless speculation about the Apocalypse, including the false doctrine of the Rapture (or is my late Grandfather used to call it, the Rupture), a very unscriptural idea that basically says the God is going to rescue the Church from the worst of the persecution before the end of this present world, and that it will primarily be unbelievers who will be left to endure the time of the Antichrist. I happened to hear a portion of a lengthy series on that very topic from a very prominent evangelical preacher on radio and television just this past week. (I will not mention the name of this person, but will say that they are generally well-regarded among many of our evangelical brethren, and not seen as a shyster or prosperity preacher).
Not only is this a gross misinterpretation of the Word of God, we can look at the world today and know that this doctrine is complete rubbish. Someone forgot to tell the Christians of the Near East, of Central and Southern Africa, or Communist China that they were going to be raptured away before the forces of the Antichrist could get to them. I think they would be among the first to disagree with that silly assessment.
Yet we are promised in the readings today that the return of Jesus Christ is something that we can look forward to, and that it is not an invented falsehood but a fundamental belief of our faith. Jesus promised he would be back, and in a few moments we will profess that Truth in the Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and His Kingdom will have no end.” For those who pray the Office of Readings, or are familiar with the Church’s traditional end-of-year prayers, we recite the same truth every Sunday and Solemnity in the Office of the Church, because in the Te Deum we find the words “we believe that you will come and be our judge.” This is not some fantasy, it is a promise of our Lord Jesus Christ and a cardinal belief of our faith.
We don’t know when the Lord Jesus will come back, and he’s even asked us from day to day not to concern ourselves with when that will be, but to go on with our lives living and spreading the message of the Gospel in the world. Every day since the Ascension of the Lord that he gives us to be here is another day of Grace, another day for us to get it right with God, and to win souls to Christ, and to his Holy Church. Every day that passes that we all remain on this Earth is another day of Grace provided to us by the mercy of God. What is the best way we can prepare for Christ’s return? I think Jesus gives us the best advice. “Wherefore be you also ready, because at what hour you know not, the Son of man will come.” (Matthew 24:44 DRC)