The Ascension of the Lord

By Father Donald Dilger

Sunday Scripture

The Ascension of the Lord

Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20

Luke addresses his Acts of Apostles to the same Theophilus to whom he addressed his gospel. Writing materials — parchment, papyrus, ink — were expensive. The skill to write must have been a well-paid profession. Theophilus may have been the wealthy sponsor who made it possible for Luke to compose his documents for a Christian community. As Acts begins, the author gives his sponsor a quick review of the first book, the gospel. In Luke’s gospel the following events all happen on one day, the day of the resurrection. Jesus rises from the dead, encounters the two men from Emmaus, appears to the Eleven, briefly instructs them, leads them out of Jerusalem, and “was carried up to heaven.” All these events happened on the same day. In today’s first reading, however, Luke informs that after the resurrection, Jesus kept appearing to the disciples during 40 days and instructing them. They must stay in Jerusalem to wait until “the promise of the Father,” the Holy Spirit, arrived, and “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” The apostles still think Jesus will establish a political kingdom, but they want to know when? Jesus informs them that “times and seasons” are established by his Father, or “You don’t need to know that.” After they receive the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), they won’t be asking such questions. Jesus designates them his official witness “from Jerusalem. . . to the ends of the earth.” Then he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. That’s the ascension of Jesus in Acts. To recall: in Luke’s gospel the ascension happens on the day of the resurrection. In Acts, 40 days after the resurrection. Can both be correct? It is possible that Luke was telescoping events in his gospel, then expanding them in Acts? Or is he hinting that we should not understand the ascension so concretely, that is, Jesus floating away into the sky, that there are different ways of expressing Jesus’ ascension? In other words, what does “ascension” mean for Jesus? St. Paul may have the answer to this question in today’s second reading. “. . . the Father of glory. . . raising him from the dead, seating him at his right hand in the heavens, far above every . . . authority, power, dominion and above every name that is named. He put all things under his feet, and gave him as head over all things . . . .” In ancient times, this describes kingship. Ascension means Jesus is king.

Another incident follows the disappearance of Jesus. Two men in white stood by them as their eyes kept searching for a sighting of Jesus. The men assure the disciples that Jesus would return “the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” Who are the two men in white? We have met them before. When Jesus’ faithful women-disciples came to the tomb of Jesus they found it empty. Two men in white appeared, assuring them that the same Jesus whom they had seen crucified had now risen from the dead. Long before these two incidents we met two men in white at the Transfiguration — Moses and Elijah. The purpose of their appearance on that occasion, representatives of the Torah and the Prophets proclaiming that what was about to happen to Jesus was in accord with what was written in the Old Testament. Their presence has the same purpose at the resurrection and the ascension. All events concerning Jesus were God’s plan.

The Responsorial Psalm 47 is particularly appropriate as a response to the concrete language of Acts expressing Jesus rising into the air, and seated at God’s right hand in the second reading — human language that cannot and does not express the reality of the Divine. Nevertheless, it is all we have. Therefore, we unite ourselves with the people’s response in the divinely inspired human words of the Psalmist, “God mounts his throne to shouts of joy, a blare of trumpets for the Lord.”

The gospel reading from Matthew for the Solemnity of the Ascension does not depict an ascension of Jesus but well expresses what ascension means — Jesus appears in glory. The location: Galilee on a mountain. The “mountain” immediately alerts us to the glorified Jesus as God, because in the Old Testament the best known manifestations of God are on a mountain. If that is not enough to proclaim Jesus’ glory, Matthew writes, “When they saw him, they worshipped him.” That’s the good news. Now the bad news: “but they doubted.” After having experienced the intimacy of companionship with Jesus, their training, their instruction, reports of his resurrection, they doubted. True, in Matthew’s gospel the risen Jesus had not at all appeared to them. He had appeared only to his women disciples. Is doubt simply the other side of the coin in matters of faith? In John’s gospel — doubting Thomas. In Luke’s gospel: when Jesus appears to his disciples, he has to convince them he is real by eating a piece of broiled fish in their presence. This writer asked an ancient priest many years ago if he ever has doubts about what he has believed and defended in a long life of ministry. His reply: every day! So let’s not judge the apostles. They worked through it, and the Church is the evidence.

The gospel reading closes with the Great Commission. Matthew attributes to Jesus words that echo the power given by the Ancient of Days to the Son of Man in Daniel 7:13-14, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” That truly summarizes the meaning of ascension. That power does not remain in Jesus alone. The word “therefore” connects the commissioning of the disciples with the power of Jesus, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations.” Discipling begins with an initiation, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Is that enough? No way! The RCIA begins, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. Jesus does not expect them to work without his help, “And behold, I am with you to the end of the age.” This leaves us up in the air, so to speak. Did Jesus leave or did he stay? The Gospel of John has the same challenge. His bodily presence subject to the laws of physics is gone. His spiritual body, a term coined by St. Paul in I Corinthians 15:44, is alive and well and makes possible his presence as food and drink in the Eucharist.