On top of the mountain from which Jesus bade his last farewell to his disciples can be seen many ancient olive trees; hence, the name Mount of Olives. The spot was well known to Jesus who often went on top of that mountain for prayer. Its special importance can be glimpsed from the epoch making events that happened there: Jesus taught there the most popular prayer uniting all Christendom—the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father; there also at the urging of the disciples, He enunciated the eschatological discourses, revealing the things to come; and at the base of this mountain—where Gethsemane is located—He experienced His terrible agony. It wouldn’t be surprising that He will return to this mountain to bid farewell. Zechariah had prophesied that, “On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two” (Zechariah 14:4). The exact spot from which tradition says that He was lifted up to heaven has an indented footprint in solid rock. There used to be two footprints, one of which was relocated to another shrine. A small chapel has been erected which has a large white dome that pulls your gaze heavenward, and a single narrow door so low that all who enter must bow (as is the case at the Church of the Nativity, from where He entered our world).
Many pilgrims to Jerusalem climb up to the Mount of Olives to see the footprints that Jesus left on the mountain. Those footprints aren’t just to be observed; they’re an invitation for us to take Him from there to the world. That is what He meant when, as we heard in the first reading, He told the apostles: “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Those were the last words of Jesus to His apostles and to the world. Hence, the Ascension rather than keep us gazing to the sky or sitting comfortably in our air-conditioned Churches sets us out on a journey—a journey to become disciples, carrying His name to the ends of the earth, baptizing those who believe, casting out demons, smiting serpents, speaking in tongues, and healing the sick. None of these tasks is easy to undertake. We have unbelieving children and relatives who must be brought back through loving persuasions, by the example of our lives, and through knees bent in prayer. We must not let our guards down as the enemy commits souls to hell. We’re aware of the snakes swirling around as sinful behaviors, deception, corruption, and indifference in the face of world hunger and disease. We must speak the language of the spirit which sounds alarming to the unbeliever but surely saves. We cannot sit out the rubble, waiting for Jesus to come back to complete the work. He didn’t leave us a bed to rest securely but His footprints to set out on a journey of faith. The second reading says that He has equipped us for the work of ministry, for building up His body (Ephesians 4:12).
But before the apostles set out, He tells them to return to Jerusalem for the promise of the Father, to be fulfilled when the Holy Spirit descends upon them. The Holy Spirit will let them see the clear picture so they can be empowered to begin the journey. He will be the force lifting them above so much they’ll encounter, including persecution and martyrdom. The Holy Spirit also helps us rise above the divisions, hurts, disappointments, negativity and gossips to which we often get sucked into. When from the window of an airplane you look down to the earth, everything appears little; you realize, too, that the lines of division on the map between Oklahoma and Texas, between US and Canada do not exist. Thus Ascension leads us to rise above our divisions and prejudices and get closer to God. At that we realize that God—not we—is the center. The things that seem big become tiny when seen from the lens of God. Thus rather than feed into family squabbles, we become bridge-builders; rather than act out of cynicism, we become hope for the world.