May 28, 2017: Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (A)

1st Reading – Acts 1:1-11

In the first book, Theophilus,
I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught
until the day he was taken up,
after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit
to the apostles whom he had chosen.
He presented himself alive to them
by many proofs after he had suffered,
appearing to them during forty days
and speaking about the kingdom of God.
While meeting with the them,
he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem,
but to wait for “the promise of the Father
about which you have heard me speak;
for John baptized with water,
but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

When they had gathered together they asked him,
“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons
that the Father has established by his own authority.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”
When he had said this, as they were looking on,
he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.
While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going,
suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.
They said, “Men of Galilee,
why are you standing there looking at the sky?
This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven
will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

Acts has been called a sequel to the gospels, in that it takes over from where Luke’s gospel leaves off, with the ascension forming the hinge point between the two works.

St. Luke, an educated man, a physician by profession, was meticulous and orderly. He set out in Acts, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to prove the truth of the Apostles’ teaching and show how rapidly that teaching spread. Today’s reading documents Jesus’ ascension and records his last words to the disciples.

In the first book,

The Gospel of Luke.

Theophilus,

The identity of Theophilus is unknown.  He may have been a patron of the author, one responsible for the circulation of the writings. The name means “lover of God” and could also indicate the Christian community as a whole.  He is similarly mentioned in the opening of the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:3).

I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.

The event of the ascension is described at the end of the Gospel of Luke, and is again recounted here.  The ascension thus becomes the transition from the earthly ministry of Jesus (Gospel of Luke) to the experiences of the early Church (Acts of the Apostles).

From a theological point of view, the ascension brought a kind of closure to the earthly activity of Jesus and simultaneously launched the apostles on their own ministry.

He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered,

Here the Greek word paschein is translated as “suffered,” although it is usually translated as “passion” and refers to Jesus’ integral passion-death experience.

appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 

A point is made that the apostles were instructed by Jesus both during his lifetime and after his resurrection.  It seems that the latter instruction included convincing them that he was really alive.

Forty in Hebrew numerology is a number representing transition or change. The great flood lasted 40 days (Genesis 7:17); Moses was instructed in the Law on the mountain for 40 days (Exodus 34:28); Elijah journeyed toward the mountain of God for 40 days (1 Kings 19:8).  By using the number, the author connects Jesus with the expectations of Israel.

While meeting with them, he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem,

Jesus gives the apostles instructions in preparation for Pentecost.

The directive to wait in Jerusalem creates another important connection to Israel: in order to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy, the mission must go forth from that sacred city to the ends of the world (Isaiah 2:3).

but to wait for “the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the holy Spirit.”

The promise of the Father is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This recalls John the Baptist’s statement (Luke 3:16; Matthew 3:11): “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” This precisely demonstrates the prophecy’s fulfillment, drawing a third line of continuity between Israel and the Church.

It also makes John the Baptist the herald of the Church as well as of the Messiah.

When they had gathered together they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The disciples associated this coming of the Spirit with the end-times, so it was natural for them to expect that another eschatological event, the restoration of the rule of Israel, was about to occur.  It isn’t clear whether the disciples’ hope is for a worldly, nationalistic kingdom for an immediate parousia, to which the outpouring of the Spirit was to lead.

Regardless, their misunderstanding presented an opportunity for the risen Jesus to instruct them one final time.

He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.

See also Mark 13:32; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3.  These matters are within God’s control and is not for them to know.

But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus’ last words assure them of their transformation and inform them of their mission. He will leave them but the Spirit will come, and they will experience him through the presence of that Spirit. They are to concern themselves with being Jesus’ witnesses, not with the impending parousia or the restoration of Israel.

When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.

The actual account of the ascension itself is very brief.  When their responsibilities had been sufficiently explained, Jesus was taken from their sight; a visible departure.

The cloud is a traditional symbol of the presence of God.

While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?

Attention now shifts to these mysterious men who now appear, they are presumably angels, although the text does not specify this.  The two men are reminiscent of the two men in similar garb who were at the tomb and announced the resurrection (Luke 24:4-5), where they asked “Why do you look for the living among the dead?

This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

The ascension is a prefigurement of the parousia, although the symbolic nature of this description prevents us from knowing just what it might mean.

The Church is now in a liminal state; Jesus has departed, but the Spirit has not yet come.

2nd Reading – Ephesians 1:17-23

Brothers and sisters:
May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,
give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation
resulting in knowledge of him.
May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,
that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call,
what are the riches of glory
in his inheritance among the holy ones,
and what is the surpassing greatness of his power
for us who believe,
in accord with the exercise of his great might,
which he worked in Christ,
raising him from the dead
and seating him at his right hand in the heavens,
far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion,
and every name that is named
not only in this age but also in the one to come.
And he put all things beneath his feet
and gave him as head over all things to the church,
which is his body,
the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.

This section of Paul’s letter to the church he founded in Ephesus is an intercessory prayer asking that believers be granted the wisdom and insight to reverence the mysteries of Christ and to live lives informed by them.

May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,

This title, Father of Glory, occurs only here in the New Testament, but Acts 7:2 calls him “God of Glory” and 1 Corinthians 2:8 says “Lord of Glory.”

give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation

Wisdom and revelation are gifts necessary for insight and understanding.

resulting in knowledge of him.

Not knowledge merely of God’s plan, but knowledge “of him,” an experience of God’s great love for men in Christ that would be visibly shown in a true brotherhood of men.

May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe,

The prayer is for threefold spiritual enlightenment: 1) the hope of the calling, 2) the riches of spiritual inheritance, and 3) the surpassing greatness of God’s power.  These things have already been established, it is for the believers to acknowledge them in awe.

in accord with the exercise of his great might,

The blessings referenced just previously are being put in the context of God’s great power.

which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion,

The view of Christ is exalted: he now sits at God’s right hand (see Psalm 110:1), high above all other heavenly creatures.  Most likely, “principality, authority, power, and dominion” are references to classifications of angels (see Romans 8:38; Colossians 1:16), who were created through the wisdom of God and considered superior to human creatures.

A human creature has now been exalted above them.

and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come.

No present or future power is beyond Christ’s rule, which is universal in scope and duration.

And he put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.

The body metaphor characterizing the Church is introduced.  Exalted by God, Christ is made the head of the Church, which is the body of Christ.  As members of this exalted body, believers share in Christ’s fullness, in his exaltation.

Gospel – Matthew 28:16-20

The eleven disciples went to Galilee,
to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.
When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.
Then Jesus approached and said to them,
“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

Today’s gospel reading is the brief ending to Matthew’s gospel and is replete with familiar theological themes.

The eleven disciples

The number highlights the defection of Judas.

went to Galilee,

Jesus has instructed the apostles to go to Galilee, the place where his ministry had begun, to assure those who still harbored doubts that this mysterious person was indeed the same Jesus with whom they had previously walked.

to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.

The mountain is symbolic of revelation, a kind of Galilean Sinai.  The specific name and location of the mountain need not be sought; it falls in the same category as the mountain upon which Jesus was tempted (Matthew 4:8), the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:1), and the mount of transfiguration (Matthew 17:1).

When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.

Their worship shows their faith, yet this is mingled with doubt — a common psychological experience which gives hope to modern Christians. The mention of doubt is a candid observation — recall the gospel accounts of “doubting Thomas,” as well as the recurring theme in the resurrection stories of those who saw Jesus and did not recognize him.

Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

Note the past tense. It is God who has bestowed divine authority on Jesus as Son of Man. This is a reference to the Son of Man who was exalted by God and granted eschatological authority in Daniel 7:14.

Go, therefore,

Employing the power granted by God, he commissions them.

and make disciples of all nations,

The commission is straightforward and all-encompassing, presenting a daunting challenge. All social and cultural boundaries are dissolved; ethnic and gender restrictions are lifted.

This call has challenged beliefs from the time of its utterance to our very day.  The early Church experience tension as it moved from an exclusively Jewish context into the Gentile world.  Today we struggle with the diversity at the heart of enculturation.

The general command is to make disciples, with two subordinate clauses which explain how this is to be done: baptize and teach.

baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit,

This is the first mention of the Trinitarian formula. It is in this threefold name (one name, not three) that the disciples are to baptize.

Notice that, true to the Jewish roots of this community, the divine name is not actually given — it is enough to refer to it.

teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

The disciples are to carry on Jesus’ teaching ministry, thus laying the foundation for Christian education, theology, and other intellectual work.

And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

The task of baptizing and teaching all nations is so daunting that there is a promise of continual support. The gift of the Holy Spirit is not explicitly mentioned here, in contrast to John 20:22 and Acts 2:1-4 (see also Matthew 18:20).

In the infancy narrative at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, we are told that Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us” — and here, at the end of the gospel, he is still with us and promises to remain so until the end of time.

Connections and Themes

Feast of the Ascension.  The ascension is really a transitional moment in the Easter season: we have left one place in our journey but have not yet arrived at the next.  We are celebrating one aspect of the resurrection, namely the exaltation of Jesus.  Today we rejoice in his triumphant ascension; soon, on Pentecost Sunday, we will celebrate the coming of his Spirit.  Even though we has left us physically, we do not live without him as we wait.  He is present with us in a new way, in a new body, in the Church.

The enthronement of Christ.  Many of the Easter accounts have directed our attention to the appearances of Jesus, which were intended to strengthen the Christians’ belief in his bodily resurrection.  The emphasis was frequently on certain physical characteristics: he ate food, he invited Thomas to touch him.  The underlying message is that this is the same Jesus that walked with the apostles before, the body that they had always known.

Now that we have recognized the risen body of Christ, today we stand awestruck, watching Jesus ascend in his glorified humanity into the clouds of heaven, to be enthroned at the right hand of God.  We are overwhelmed by the reality of the divinity of the one we have known as one of us.

The new body of Christ.  Christ carries on what he began on earth through his new body, the community of believers.  In and through the Church, Jesus continues to teach, heal, comfort, forgive, and include.  We have not been left alone; we have each other, and together we make up the new body of Christ.

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