By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord
First Reading: Acts 1:1-11; Response: Psalm 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9; Second Reading: Ephesians 4:1-13; Gospel: Mark 16:15-20
The first reading is Luke’s second narrative of Jesus’ ascension. The first one is found in his gospel, chapter 24. It goes like this. On the day of his resurrection, Jesus suddenly stood among his disciples gathered in Jerusalem. They were frightened and doubted that he was the real Jesus. He shows them the wounds of the crucifixion and ate a piece of broiled fish for all to see. He gave them a brief catechesis and promised to send to them the Father’s gift, the Holy Spirit. He led them outside Jerusalem about two miles to the small town of Bethany on the eastern slope of the Mt. of Olives. This was the hometown of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. “He blessed them, parted from them, and was carried up to heaven.” This and more all happened on one day. There were no forty days of instruction. There was no novena in the so-called upper room, praying with the mother of Jesus and about 120 disciples, all awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The second narrative of the ascension of Jesus, our first reading, is also composed by Luke. But there are differences. Jesus kept appearing to the apostles throughout forty days and teaching them. They questioned him about the coming of his kingdom — still expecting him to set up a political kingdom centered on Jerusalem, kick out the Romans, and they would be the governing officials. Jesus does not again scold them for their inability to grasp what he meant by a kingdom, so he gives them an evasive answer in which he promises to send the Holy Spirit upon them. Then they would know the answer to their question. While they were looking on, “He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. Two men in white suddenly stood by them. These two promised that Jesus would return “in the same way as you saw him going into heaven.” The apostles returned to the upper room, and the novena (nine days) leading to Pentecost began.
How does one explain the differences in the two stories? Was Luke telescoping events into one day in his gospel version, but detailing events in Acts of Apostles? Was he comfortable giving two stories so different? Complicating matters is the fact that in John’s gospel Jesus ascends to his Father and returns with the gift of the Holy Spirit all on the day of his resurrection. More different yet is Matthew’s version. There is no ascension but the eleven disciples meet Jesus on a mountain in Galilee. He gives them their commission and promises to be with them always until the end. How can all these differences be brought together? First we must understand that the ascension of Jesus does not have to mean floating off into the sky. It can be expressed in different ways without contradiction. Ascension and “sitting at the right hand of the Father” are metaphors for the glorification of Jesus. The ascension is expressed best in Ephesians 1:21-22. Paul writes that through the resurrection of Jesus he is “far above all authority, power, and dominion, and above every name that is named, and the Father has put all things under his (Jesus’) feet, and made him the head over all things . . . .” Thus the narratives of the ascension of Jesus celebrate his universal kingship expressed in different ways.
Psalm 47 celebrates the kingship of “the Lord, the Most High, the awesome, great king over the earth.” The people respond, “God mounts his throne to shouts of joy, a blare of trumpets for the Lord.” Even though the original intent of the psalm celebrates the kingship of God with trumpet blasts in the temple, the liturgy of the Solemnity of the Ascension of Jesus applies the psalm to the kingship of Jesus.
The original and highly unusual ending of Mark’s gospel was this: “The women went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them, and they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” Mark includes no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, and no ascension. There must have been Christian teachers and preachers not satisfied with this ending — so different from the endings of the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John. Their dissatisfaction resulted in nine attempts to improve Mark’s gospel. Today’s gospel reading is one of those attempts. Influenced by Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples in Matthew and Luke, the author of the new ending writes, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” Next, we see the influence of John’s gospel, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. Whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Believers will be known by various signs. They will drive out demons, speak in tongues (languages), pick up serpents with their bare hands. If they drink poison, it will not harm them. They will restore health to the sick through the laying on of hands.
Driving out demons and laying on of hands to cure the sick is common practice in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The gift of tongues is thoroughly treated by St. Paul in Romans 12, 13, 14. These sources were obviously known to the author of the new ending to Mark’s gospel. A problem might be with the picking up of serpents. The implication is that this is done without harm. A “Do not try this at home” warning would have been in order. Under the influence of this passage some fundamentalist groups do pick up poisonous snakes in their rituals. Sometimes they get by with it. Other times they do get bitten and die. For the sources of this strange idea, see Wisdom 16:10, Luke 10:19, Acts 28:3. What about drinking poison harmlessly? Not a good idea. Even popes have died from drinking poison prepared by enemies. St. Benedict’s monks, so the legend, tried to kill him in this way. Like any good Christian he prayed before meals, and a little serpent peeped out of his poisoned wine. Finally, the author of Mark’s new ending adds what he found most missing in Mark’s gospel, an ascension of Jesus. “So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up to heaven, and took his seat at the right hand of God.”