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
To express the glorification of Jesus through an ascension, the liturgy, art, catechetics and tradition are all heavily dependent on Luke’s first chapter of Acts of Apostles, which is our first reading. It needs to be said that the New Testament gives us a variety of depictions of Jesus’ ascension. Even Luke gives us a different picture in the last chapter of his gospel than he does in Acts. So, we look at Luke’s Acts of Apostles. First, he reminds his probable financial sponsor, Theophilus, of what he wrote in the document we call the Gospel of Luke. The first lines in Acts summarize what he wrote in the last chapter of his gospel. Then, a change. The gospel implies that Jesus’ appearance to his disciples, his instructions to them and his ascension all happened on the day of his rising from the dead. In Acts, we hear of an interval of 40 days, during which Jesus instructed them. That is the major difference from the narrative in the gospel. Why Luke’s concern about the 40 days? Though it may be historical, one has to wonder why the Lord God is so partial to the number 40. It is used 100 plus a few times in the combined Old and New Testaments. Best to think of its use in 40 days or 40 years as expressing a length of time. No need for biblical authors to be exact about matters that are not points of revelation.
A second notable difference between Luke’s gospel and Acts of Apostles: the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He spent at least three years with his chosen band of disciples, often enough trying to get them to give up the idea of the kingdom of God as a political, geographical concept. Now, at the last moment, they still have a question about a political restoration of the kingdom of David, which had been out of existence since 587 B.C. Jesus is more patient with them here than he sometimes was in the gospel. See, for example, Luke 9:40-41. There, a frustrated Jesus says to them, “How long must I put up with you?” His resurrection from the dead must have made his humanity more patient with human foibles; so in Acts, he gives an evasive answer: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons the Father has established by his own authority.” They will, however, not remain a bunch of ignoramuses. “In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit … and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
These last words of Jesus on earth are followed immediately by Luke’s version of the ascension, “As they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” Luke’s gospel narrative is similar. “While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven.” So, the big question: “Did Jesus actually float up into the sky?” The Gospel of Mark cannot help us in this matter, since the original ending of Mark gave us not even post-resurrection appearances, Therefore, no ascension, either. The Gospel of Matthew gives us no ascension. What Matthew does give us is an appearance of Jesus to the 11 disciples on a mountain in Galilee. He gives them final instructions, but then adds, “I am with you always to the close of the age (end of time.)” That does not sound like a final leave-taking, as we have in Luke’s two versions.
Neither can the Gospel of John satisfactorily answer the question of bodily movement into the air. In John’s post-resurrection chapters, when Jesus appears to Mary of Magdala, he tells the enthusiastic Mary not to touch him, but to report to his brethren, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” But on the evening of the same day, the day of his resurrection, Jesus is back with a gift — the Holy Spirit. There was no indication of Jesus floating into the sky. Further complicating matters is the teaching of St. John Paul II that heaven is not to be thought of as a locality or place as we imagine a place with geographical boundaries or walls. Pope Benedict XVI took it a further step, saying, “Heaven is simply God.” Though God is present everywhere, a clearer way of understanding heaven as God is that heaven is union with God – the Divine Indwelling in us begun already in this life and perfected in the next. Last week’s column, (sixth Sunday of Easter) played with the ancient Greek theological term perichoresis, or dancing in a circle, as was done or is done at Greek weddings. It seems to be a good way of illustrating the intimacy of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity’s relationship with and to each other, into which we are invited to join – dancing for eternity into an ever-faster-moving circle until all is a blur.
Considering all of the above, it is probably better to not be too concretely attached to the idea of Jesus floating up into the sky – but to look at what ascension means rather than looking for “the how” of it. A prime example is in today’s first reading. Paul writes that the Father raised Jesus from the dead, “seating him at his right hand (symbol of honor and power), far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named … putting all things beneath his (Jesus’) feet, making him head over all things….” In other words, making him King of the Universe in his human nature. A final notable difference between Luke’s narrative in his gospel and the narrative in Acts of Apostles: in Acts, Luke writes that, while the disciples were looking into the sky as he was going, “two men in white garments stood beside them.” Who were these gentlemen? Were they angels in human disguise? We have met them before. Their first appearance was at Jesus’ transfiguration. Their names are Moses and Elijah. What was their role in the transfiguration? Moses represented the Torah (first five books of the Bible); Elijah, the Prophets. These are the two main divisions of the Hebrew Bible. They witnessed that what was about to happen to Jesus in Jerusalem was revealed by God in Torah and Prophets. Luke told us they discussed with Jesus his Exodus that was to take place at Jerusalem. That Exodus includes his death, resurrection and return to glory. Now that all was completed, Luke brings them back on stage for the ascension, as if to say, “Now you know what we were trying to tell you back then.”