By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Ascension of the Lord Jesus, Year A
First Reading: Acts 1:1-11; Response: Psalm 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9; Second Reading: Ephesians 1:17-23; Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20
Luke begins his Acts of Apostles with a dedication to Theophilus, the same man to whom he dedicated his gospel. The name is of Greek origin and means “beloved of God.” Who was he? Perhaps a financial supporter of Luke. The ability to write was not common and involved considerable expense for writing materials. Or, Theophilus could have been a distinguished convert whose personal prestige would enhance the publication of Luke’s writings. First, Luke gives his readers a review of what he had written in the last chapter of his gospel – including Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples throughout 40 days following his resurrection. Now, we enter new territory as Luke describes a final dialogue between Jesus and the disciples. They were still expecting Jesus to establish a political and/or geographical kingdom on earth, so they expectedly ask a not-so-bright question about when Jesus would restore the kingdom to Israel. Jesus’ evasive answer may indicate annoyance, as he says, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons the Father established by his own authority.” Jesus repeats from the gospel the promise of the Holy Spirit and their empowerment to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” – a universal mission, but nothing about an earthly kingdom.
Luke moves on to the heart of his proclamation. As the disciples were looking on, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud obscured him from their sight. Let’s look back to the final chapter of Luke’s gospel.
In that chapter, Jesus’ resurrection, the discovery of the empty tomb, the Emmaus encounter, the appearance to the disciples, final instructions and ascension all happened on the day of Jesus’ resurrection. In Luke’s Acts, however, he notes 40 days of Jesus’ interaction with his disciples – from the day of resurrection to the ascension. Perhaps he was just telescoping events in his gospel and now pulls events apart into a time frame for his readers. A question may be asked whether Jesus actually floated up into the sky, or was Luke simply following the conventional belief that heaven was up? One suspects that he was giving us different ways of expressing Jesus’ ascension – but not too concretely. We should, rather, be looking for the meaning of ascension. The answer is in our second reading. “. . . the Father of glory . . . raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand (a symbol of power) . . . far above every principality, authority, power, dominion, and every name that is named, putting all things under his feet, head over all things,” etc. That is a description of universal rule and the meaning of the Ascension.
After Jesus was obscured by a cloud, a symbol of divine presence in the Old and New Testaments, Luke adds a sequel. Two men dressed in white garments suddenly stood beside the disciples, speaking to them. “Men of Galilee, why are you looking at the sky? This Jesus taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way . . .” in a cloud of divine presence. Who were these men? We may have met them twice before in the Gospel of Luke. When Jesus’ women-disciples discovered the tomb empty, “two men in dazzling apparel stood by them,” and explained how all that happened to Jesus had to happen to him. The implication is that what was written in the Scriptures imposed the necessity of what happened to Jesus. Recall that, at the transfiguration of Jesus, two men “in glory” appeared with Jesus. Luke names them: Moses and Elijah. Their purpose: to witness that what was about to happen to Jesus in Jerusalem was in accord with the Scriptures. Luke is the only evangelist who seems to suggest that the two men in white were the same witnesses to the Scriptures at all three events.
Psalm 47 celebrates the kingship of God, who mounts his throne amid shouts of joy and trumpet blasts. The whole earth is asked to applaud and shout. “For king of all the earth is God who reigns over nations.” When our liturgy selects this psalm to celebrate the ascension of Jesus, we are to understand that what is said of God in the Old Testament psalm is now applied to Jesus as God.
The gospel reading from Matthew does not depict an ascension or floating up into the sky. Instead, Jesus appears to his disciples on a mountain — a symbol of divine presence in both Old and New Testaments. Matthew seems to imply that Jesus appeared in glory, as he notes, “when they saw him, they worshipped him.” That’s the good news. Now the bad news: “but they doubted.” Matthew can say this because, in his gospel, Jesus had not yet appeared to them, but only to the women who were his disciples. But is it so unusual to doubt, from time to time, what we have accepted through faith in revelation? This writer many years ago asked an elderly, retired pastor if he ever has doubts in matters of faith. His answer: “Every day!” So, let’s not judge the apostles. They worked through their doubts and, with God’s gift of faith, turned them into acts of faith like that of Thomas in John’s gospel: “My Lord and my God!”
The gospel closes with the Great Commission. Matthew attributes to Jesus' words that echo those of the Son of Man (human being) who, in Daniel 7:13-14, has been given authority and power over an everlasting kingdom by the Ancient of Days – a name for God. Matthew’s Jesus says, “All power in heaven and earth has been given to me.” To what purpose? The extension of that power to the disciples. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” Discipleship is established by an initiation: “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Initiation is not enough: “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” As noted above, Matthew depicts no ascension of Jesus. Quite the opposite; he attributes these words to Jesus: “And behold, I am with you always until the end of the age.” The phrase “end of the age” is familiar from Jewish writings. It posits a division between the time of this world and the age to come – the hereafter world. Jesus’ presence is a guarantee that his work also will endure as long as the earth as we know it endures.