This Sunday, When Jesus Does Something Strange, He Is Sending a Message

The Easter Season is drawing to a close after 40 days. Before he left the earth behind, Jesus went to great lengths to show us what he wants us to do after he is gone, and it’s on clear display on the Ascension of the Lord and the Seventh Sunday of Easter.

Before we get to what he wants, though, let’s focus on what he did.

Because what he did is awfully strange. For starters: How, exactly, did Jesus “Ascend”?

It’s not altogether clear how literally we are to take the accounts of Jesus’ departure from earth. Mark in the Ascension Gospel says he “was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God.” Luke in our First Reading, from Acts, says he was “lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight.”

Did he rise up into the sky where a throne awaited him on a cloud somewhere? Or did he kind of dissipate like a Star Trek tractor beam, while mists swirled around him?

Here’s a way to think of it:

We know there is a heaven, which isn’t so much “up above the clouds” as it is in another dimension outside of time and space. We believe Jesus is one with our Father, who, famously, “art in heaven.”  We believe that Christ became man — entered our dimension of time and space in a body — then returned, in his body, to heaven.

To ask, “What does it look like when someone leaves our familiar dimensions to depart them altogether?” is to ask something that’s beyond our imagination. They say if a two-dimensional creature were to see a sphere, it wouldn’t make sense, either.

What we do know is that when an embodied Person returns to heaven, it looks like the Ascension. In the First Reading, creatures of heaven — angels — even give commentary.

After all, Jesus has to go somewhere. As Augustine put it, “We must beware of so stressing the divinity of the man that we destroy the reality of his body.” He still exists, in his body. As the Compendium of the Catechism concisely puts it:

“Christ ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of the Father. He is the Lord who now in his humanity reigns in the everlasting glory of the Son of God and constantly intercedes for us before the Father. He sends us his Spirit and he gives us the hope of one day reaching the place he has prepared for us” (No. 123).

The second mystery here is the promise Jesus gives of strange signs on earth.

Before ascending, Jesus says something startling:

“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.”

Here are two helpful ways to think of this mystery.

First imagine that, instead of signs of Christian believers, Jesus had listed “signs that will accompany Americans”:

“They will orbit the earth in space stations, they will run a mile under four minutes, and they will perform life-saving surgery on unborn children.”

We wouldn’t say “I’m American and not only have I not done those things; I don’t know anybody who has!” We would say, “How prophetic! Jesus saw what was coming.”

In the same way, many of his followers have driven out demons; a few of his believers have spoken new languages; St. Paul, for one, was unharmed by a serpent; several believers have drunk poison and been safe — and I personally know people who been involved in miraculous cures.

But, secondly, for most Christians, from the earliest days, these signs have had not just a literal but a spiritual meaning. In fact, if we had heard Jesus speak of the “American signs,” above, we would have immediately seen his deeper meaning: Americans would be technologically advanced, athletically competitive, and dedicated to medical advances.

What Jesus says about Christians can be taken the same way. Jesus promises:

  • “They will drive out demons” … and now we build wholesome culture where darkness reigned.
  • “They will speak new languages” … and we know a new language of theological truths.
  • “They will pick up serpents with their hands” … and we reject the temptations at our fingertips online and elsewhere.
  • “If they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them” … and the world’s poisonous worldview goes in one ear and out the other.
  • “They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” … and we each are able to give the one thing people need most to heal: love.

So in both senses — the literal and the figurative — this Gospel has been fulfilled as Christ said.

It’s still a strange Gospel, though, and that’s intentional.

When the Gospels get strange, you know Jesus is drawing sharp attention to something.

Think of the strangest Gospels:

Jesus walks on water after the multiplication of the loaves, to tell the apostles: “You saw the power I have over created things. Now see the power I have in my very self.”

Jesus is transfigured shortly after Peter confesses “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” as if to emphasize, “Peter’s words are true. Look and see.”

Then, Jesus disappears into thin air after breaking bread with the disciples in Emmaus, to tell them, “You asked me to stay with you and I will: in the Eucharist.”

In the First Reading for the Ascension, it couldn’t be more obvious. Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Then, he is taken from their sight.

His Ascension he is proclaiming: “I mean it. You all will have to do my work now.”

Then after they watch him rise up, the angels say, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” In other words: “Okay, he’s gone. Get to work!”

And next they hear: “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” Which means: “And he will check up on you, too!”

But whoever God sends, he also equips. And we are better equipped than we realize.

Jesus doesn’t just say that we have to do his work. He also says “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”

After he ascended, says St. Paul, “Grace was given to each of us … to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” The grace fits our state in life, he says, whether apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or teachers.

So we are given grace from above, to live his life. And the greatest grace is love.

In the past six Sundays, John has been spelling out what it means that we can now love like God loves. It means we can keep his commandments, and keep his word. In means we are God’s children in the world — not just in what we say, but in what we do. Our love isn’t an example of us doing God a favor: God loved us first. And now, those who celebrate the Seventh Sunday of Easter hear, “Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us.”

This brings it all together: Jesus promised to show that his love is in us through intense signs, and then he left the scene in a definitive way to show us that we must share that love as he has.

And now, Jesus, at God’s right hand in heaven, is as accessible to me in Atchison, Kansas, in the 21st century exactly as he was to King Luis IX’s mother in 13th-century France, and to St. Augustine’s son in the fourth century.

And we have each heard what St. Paul says: God “put all things beneath his feet and gave him, as head over all things, to the Church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.”

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.