Ascension of the Lord

By Father Donald Dilger

First Reading: Acts 1:1-11; Response: Psalm 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9; Second Reading: Ephesians 1:17-23; Gospel: Luke 24:46-53

The primary source for the formation of dogma and liturgy of the ascension of Jesus is found in Acts of Apostles, our first reading for this Solemnity. Luke begins his narrative, as he did his gospel, with a dedication to his sponsor Theophilus. He recalls to this man how he had already composed the story of Jesus’ works and teachings “until the day he was taken up . . . .” He notes that Jesus remained with his apostles forty days while he instructed them, that Jesus directed them to remain in Jerusalem until the “promise of the Father,” the Holy Spirit arrived. Luke sees another opportunity, as he had done in his gospel, to compare the baptism administered by John the Baptizer with a future baptism, “. . . John baptized with water, but . . . you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” That is all prelude or prologue to what is about to happen. The apostles are still laboring under the idea that Jesus will in some way restore “the kingdom to Israel,” a reference to the Kingdom (small empire) established by David a millennium earlier. For them this would have meant positions of power and influence in an earthly kingdom.

As happens otherwise in the gospels, here too Jesus gives an evasive answer. He knows that after the Holy Spirit inhabits them, they will finally understand what he meant by the Kingdom of God. Jesus answers, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons the Father has set by his own authority.” In other words, “At this time it is none of your business.” He assures them of power, though not secular power. That power bestowed by the Holy Spirit will give them the courage to be public witnesses to him from Jerusalem, where they were in hiding, “to the ends of the earth.” After these last words, “Jesus was lifted up and a cloud obscured him from their sight.” This is Luke’s narrative in Acts. When we recall that in Mark and Matthew there is no ascension of Jesus, and that in John’s gospel the resurrection, ascension and return all happen on the same day, and without witnesses to the ascension, we must ask just what really did happen?

Recalling that all the gospels were not written as biographies or histories but as catechisms, it is better to ask what the ascension of Jesus means rather than what actually happened. The answer is found in the second reading of the day, “seating Christ at his right hand in the heavens, (a position of power and influence humanly speaking), above every . . . authority, power, dominion, and every name that is named, putting all things under his feet, head over all things in the church, which is his body.” Summarized: Christ the King of the Universe. Luke puts a footnote to his narrative in Acts of Apostles. Two men in white suddenly appeared. We have encountered the two men in white twice before, but in Luke’s first work, his gospel. They were present at Jesus’ transfiguration and at the empty tomb. Luke names them only at the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah representing the two main divisions of the Old Testament — Moses = Torah, Elijah = Prophets. Their job description: to bear witness that everything that has happened to Jesus is in harmony with revelation in the Scriptures of the Old Testament.

The Responsorial Psalm 47 picks up the meaning of the ascension. The Psalmist asks people to clap their hands shouting to God with joy, for the Lord . . . is king over the whole earth. The Psalm is about kingship. Though the original intention of the Psalmist is praise of God as king, in the providence of God, an attribute humanly assigned to God in the Old Testament, is transferred to Jesus in the New Testament. The People’s Response summarizes the meaning of the ascension: “God, (in our liturgy applied to Jesus), mounts his throne to shouts of joy and trumpet blasts.”

In today’s first reading we hear Luke’s second narrative of the ascension of Jesus. But in the gospel of today’s liturgy we hear his first and much shorter narrative of the same event. It is enclosed within the ending of his gospel which also describes the first and only appearance of Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection. After showing the wounds of crucifixion to his frightened disciples to prove that he is the same Jesus who was crucified, and after eating a piece of broiled fish to demonstrate to his frightened disciples that his is a real body, he reminds them of what he taught during his ministry. First, what was written about him in Moses (the Torah) and the Prophets and the Writings (Psalms), had to be fulfilled. Second, Scripture (the Old Testament) had proclaimed that the Messiah had to suffer (die) and rise on the third day. Third, that repentance and forgiveness must be proclaimed in his name to all nations. It must be pointed out that this is Luke composing his theology in outline form. The original context of these Old Testament references was quite other than the Christian interpretation. Nevertheless, the application of these references to Jesus is legitimate, since the Holy Spirit can intend more than the original context and meaning of Old Testament passages.

After the catechetical instruction Jesus orders them to stay in Jerusalem until the Father’s promise, the Holy Spirit, “clothes them with power from on high.” Then Jesus led them out to the town of Bethany on the east side of the Mt. of Olives, where Lazarus, Martha, and Mary lived. He blessed them, parted from them, “and was carried up to heaven.” Both the first reading and this gospel reading are from the same author. In the gospel there is only one appearance to the disciples, one instruction, no dialogue with the disciples, and no “two men in white,” representing Torah and Prophets. In the gospel all takes place on one day. But in the first reading Jesus is with the disciples forty days, instructing them all the while. Why such major differences from the same author? Luke is teaching catechism, not biography. The differences in Luke’s two versions, plus the differences between Luke and the other gospels remind us that we must ask not what happened, but what does the ascension mean. The answer was given above.