May 10/13, 2018: Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (B)

Introduction

The Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord commemorates the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven. It is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, the fortieth day of Easter (following the accounts given in Mark 16:19, Luke 24:51 and Acts 1:2). However, in most of the United States, the feast is commuted to the following Sunday. The decision whether to celebrate on Thursday or the following Sunday is determined by ecclesiastical province, a large archdiocese and other dioceses that are bound to it through geography or history. In the United States, all ecclesiastical provinces have transferred the celebration of the Ascension to Sunday except Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, and Omaha. Regardless of when it is celebrated, it is a holy day of obligation.

The observance of this feast is of great antiquity. Eusebius seems to hint at the celebration of it in the 4th century. At the beginning of the 5th century, Saint Augustine says that it is of Apostolic origin, and he speaks of it in a way that shows it was the universal observance of the Church long before his time.

In the liturgy, we celebrate the completion of the work of our salvation, the pledge of our glorification with Christ, and his entry into heaven with our human nature glorified.

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 and 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 can be divided into two parts: the first briefly mentions the ministry of Jesus and some of his post-resurrection activity, the second recounts one particular event, Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

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 reading, though addressed to believers, is really a series of intercessions for 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 resulting in knowledge of him.

Wisdom and revelation are the necessary gifts for insight and understanding.

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,

While the references to knowledge may sound a bit like Gnosticism, the belief that special God-given knowledge (gnōsis) set some people apart from the rest, it is clear that union with Christ is was sets Christians apart.

The revelation and enlightenment referred to here provides the ability to understand the mysteries that have already occurred.  The verb forms used indicate that the action has been completed and the results of the action are effected in the present.

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, 

The power referred to throughout the reading belongs to God.  It was God’s power that raised Christ from the dead and seated Christ in the place of honor in heaven.

Paul is now calling upon this same power is to provide wisdom and revelation for the believers.

far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion,

The view of Christ is exalted: having been raised from the dead, 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 being 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.  Seated in the heavens above all other creatures, Christ’s glory fills the universe.

This reading is a prayer that the believers be granted the wisdom and insight to grasp these mysteries and to live lives informed by them.

Alternate 2nd Reading – Ephesians 4:1-13

Brothers and sisters:
I, a prisoner for the Lord,
urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received,
with all humility and gentleness, with patience,
bearing with one another through love,
striving to preserve the unity of the spirit
through the bond of peace:
one body and one Spirit,
as you were also called to the one hope of your call;
one Lord, one faith, one baptism;
one God and Father of all,
who is over all and through all and in all.

But grace was given to each of us
according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
Therefore, it says:
He ascended on high and took prisoners captive;
he gave gifts to men.

What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended
into the lower regions of the earth?
The one who descended is also the one who ascended
far above all the heavens,
that he might fill all things.

And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets,
others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers,
to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry,
for building up the body of Christ,
until we all attain to the unity of faith
and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature to manhood,
to the extent of the full stature of Christ.

Unity within the Church is the overarching theme of this passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus.

Brothers and sisters: I, a prisoner for the Lord,

Paul wrote this letter while being held prisoner in Rome. It is one of his “captivity epistles.”

urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received,

Of all the pleas a prisoner could make from his cell, Paul exhorts the Ephesians to live according to Christian standards. Note that he does not invite or encourage them, he urges them.  This is a common theme in Paul’s letters, as seen in Colossians 1:10 and Philippians 1:27.

It’s ironic that he is exhorting them to lead the kind of life that has in fact resulted in his own captivity.  However, he insists that only such a life is worthy of the call they have received from God.

The Greek verb translated as “live” is (peripateō), which means to walk on a certain path, a theme that is prominent in the wisdom tradition (Proverbs 4:11, Mark 1:3).  It suggests that a righteous life is more than conformity to a collection of regulations; it is a commitment to set oneself on a particular path and to hold fast to that path even in the face of difficulty.

with all humility and gentleness,

Paul creates a catalogue of social virtues that characterize the Christian life, all of which foster harmony within the community.

Humility is lowly-mindedness, a resistance from seeking prominence over others; the opposite of pride.

Gentleness, or meekness, is an unwillingness to provoke others or to be easily provoked.

with patience, bearing with one another through love,

Patience implies the long-suffering endurance of injuries without seeking revenge. This forbearance is motivated by love, which should not diminish on account of any injuries received.

In other words, Christians need to bring out the best of one another, provoking each other’s graces and not their anger.

striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace:

The goal of living this way is to preserve unity, which comes from the Holy Spirit.

one body

After calling for the unifying social virtues, Paul goes on to list seven elements that bind Christians to God and each other in faith.

1) Belonging to one body of Christ, one external visible community: the Church.

“What is this one body? They are the faithful throughout the world – in the present, in the past and in the future. … The body does exist apart from its enlivening spirit, else it would not be a body. It is a common human metaphor to say of things that are united and have coherence that they are one body. So we too take the term ‘body’ as an expression of unity” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392-397), Homilies On The Epistle To The Ephesians, 10,4,4].

and one Spirit,

2) Being filled with and fashioned by the one Spirit of God.

as you were also called to the one hope of your call;

3) Being inspired by the same one hope: the call to salvation.

one Lord, one faith, one baptism;

4) Professing allegiance to one Lord.

5) Committing to one shared faith.

6) Celebrating one common rite of baptism.

“The Lord is one and God is one, because the dominion of the Father and of the Son is one divinity. Moreover the faith too is said to be one, because we believe likewise in Father and in Son and in Holy Spirit. And there is one Baptism, for it is in one and the same way that we are baptized in the Father and in the Son and in the Holy Spirit. And we are dipped three times so that the one Sacrament of the Trinity may be made apparent. And we are not baptized in the names of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, but in one name, which one name we know to be God” [Saint Jerome (A.D. 436), Commentaries On The Epistle To The Ephesians, 2,4,5,6-7].

one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

The seventh and final unifying element of Christianity is the belief in the one God of Jewish monotheism, in contrast to the many gods of the pagan world.

This God is transcendent (“over all”), immanent (“in all”) and actively at work in all creation (“through all”).  Not only that, he is our Father, which bonds us together as brothers and sisters.

But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.

The diversity of the gifts (graces, charisms) which accompany the various vocations given to the members of the Church does not undermine its unity; rather, they enhance it, because it is Christ Himself who bestows these gifts.

Therefore, it says: “He ascended on high and took prisoners captive; he gave gifts to men.”

In order to explain this, Paul reinterprets an earlier Israelite tradition (Psalm 68:18, or Psalm 68:19 in the New American Bible).  In it, the victorious God ascends Mount Zion along with enemies, who are now captives, and there receives tokens of homage.

Rabbinic exegesis interpreted this verse with reference to Moses, who ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God and give it as a gift to mankind.

Saint Paul provides a Christian exegesis of the text, wherein it is the victorious Christ ascends to God, taking with him all whom he has saved through his death, and giving the gift of the Spirit to mankind.

What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended into the lower regions of the earth?

Paul states that Christ had ascended because he had first descended, presumably to the land of the dead.

The interpretation that this is a reference to the abode of the dead (sheol, hades) is supported by 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6; however, other commentators see this as a reference to Jesus’ incarnation and earthly life, in contrast with his exaltation in heaven.

The one who descended is also the one who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.

Having descended so low, Christ could now ascend to the very heights of heaven.

“All the heavens” probably refers to a Jewish tradition that there were seven heavens (2 Enoch 8). The point being made is that the exalted Christ is above all, that his power and active presence extends to all the universe.

And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, 

Returning to the theme of the diversity of gifts, Paul enumerates some of them. The organization of the Church is not a mere human arrangement; its officers are of divine appointment.

to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry,

The various officers of the Church are not lords, but servants.  The purpose of commissioning believers with these supernatural gifts is to minister to one another, for the benefit of the entire community.

for building up the body of Christ,

The body, with its many, diverse, and interdependent members, is an apt image of this living Church.

until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God,

The purpose of the various ministries mentioned previously is outlined: to attain unity of faith and knowledge of Christ.

The term “Son of God” is seldom used in the epistles (Romans 1:4; Galatians 2:20) and when it is used, it refers to Jesus in his humanity. Here, “knowledge of the Son of God” means capturing the vision of the perfect man.

to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ.

The idea of organic completeness is more fully expressed by these two clauses.  The image of bodily perfection and completion that it creates requires the full maturity of each member of the body.  The measure or sign of that maturity, both for the individual and for the whole, is the stature of the fullness of Christ.

“As members of the living Christ, incorporated into Him and made like Him by Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist, all the faithful have an obligation to collaborate in the spreading and growth of His body, so that they might bring it to fullness as soon as possible” (Vatican II, Ad gentes, 36).

Gospel – Mark 16:15-20

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Go into the whole world
and proclaim the gospel to every creature.
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved;
whoever does not believe will be condemned.
These signs will accompany those who believe:
in my name they will drive out demons,
they will speak new languages.
They will pick up serpents with their hands,
and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.
They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them,
was taken up into heaven
and took his seat at the right hand of God.
But they went forth and preached everywhere,
while the Lord worked with them
and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.

Today we hear the final six verses of Mark’s gospel, an account of Jesus’ ascension that ties together many themes found elsewhere in the gospel.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.

The passage begins with a resurrection experience.  This will be the last time Jesus shows himself to the apostles, marking a turning point in their relationship.  From now on, the rest of the Church will turn to them for guidance and instruction.

Jesus commissions the apostles to preach the gospel to “every creature.”  It is intended for all people: women and men, Gentile and Jew.

Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.

While the text does not outline the content of the gospel message they are to preach, but its salvific nature is clear.  Those who believe will be saved; those who do not believe will be condemned.

Further, faith in the message of the gospel is crowned by baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus.

These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

This faith is not some form of Gnosticism, unique information that grants one membership in a privileged world of knowing.  It is religious insight that leads one to identification with the risen Lord.

With this identification come extraordinary powers: the ability to cast out demons, to speak in tongues, to handle dangers of all kinds.  These miraculous powers are signs of the presence of the Lord.  Just as Jesus performed wonders during his lifetime, in the power of his name his followers will do likewise — a promise that was fulfilled in the early period of the Church.

For what else are hearing, reading and copiously depositing things in the memory, than several stages of drinking in thoughts? The Lord, however, foretold concerning His faithful followers, that even ‘if they should drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.’ And thus it happens that they who read with judgment, and bestow their approval on whatever is commendable according to the rule of faith, and disapprove of things which ought to be repudiated, even if they commit to their memory heretical statements which are declared to be worthy of disapproval, they receive no harm from the poisonous and depraved nature of these sentences.” (Saint Augustine, On the Soul and Its Origin, 2;23).

So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven

After having commissioned them, Jesus was taken from their sight.  Note that rather than rising by his own power, Jesus is described as being “taken up.”  This reflects the early Church’s concern to show that it is the power of God that is active in Jesus, not some other kind of miraculous force.

and took his seat at the right hand of God.

Because of the bias in favor of the right hand, anything on that side was considered privileged.  The place to one’s immediate right was the place of honor at a banquet or any other formal gathering.

As exalted Lord, Jesus takes his rightful place of privilege next to God.

But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.

The concluding verse succinctly summarizes the entire apostolic age: the apostles went into the entire world and preached the gospel; the Lord was with them, confirming their ministry through wondrous signs.

Although the apostles are engaging in evangelizing, they do not do it alone.  The Lord is with them, providing the inspiration and the grace they need to be successful.

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.  While the narratives that describe the ascension fit well into the unfolding story of redemption, the feast itself celebrates one aspect of the resurrection itself, namely, the exaltation of Jesus.  The readings help us through this paradox: they allow us to focus on this theological point while we commemorate a turning point in the life of the Church.  We do this by considering the enthronement of Christ in the heavens and the new body of Christ on earth.

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 in his humanity.

Amidst shouts of joy and exaltation, Christ is enthroned in heaven in both his divinity and his glorified humanity.  He has overcome his enemy (death) and now reigns over his new creation (the Church).  For our part, we live between the time of his departure and the time of his return.  Today we rejoice in one aspect of this mystery, his triumphant ascension; soon we will celebrate the second, the coming of his Spirit.  Even though he 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, the Church.

The new body of Christ.   Christ, who ascended into heaven in his body, carries on what he began on earth through his new body, the community of believers.  He teaches through its apostles and evangelists.  He ministers through its prophets and pastors.  In and through the Church, Jesus continues to heal and to comfort, to forgive and to include.  We have not been left alone; we have each other.  Together we make up the new body of Christ.  Together we await the fullness of this body.  It is this new body that stands between the times, secure in what we have, confident of what we will be given.

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