Jun 2, 2019: Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (C)

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 a 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 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; 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.

In this context, it also symbolizes a time of intense training and preparation for great work.  Recall that Israel spent forty years in the desert preparing to enter the Promised Land and Moses fasted for forty days on Mount Sinai when receiving the Ten Commandments.  Most of all, these forty days parallel Jesus’ fast in the desert before he was led by the Spirit to begin proclaiming the kingdom in Galilee (see Luke 4:14).  In the same way, he now spends forty days preparing the apostles to be led by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when they will begin their ministry to the ends of the earth.

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.  After all, if Jesus is the son of David and the Messiah-King (not to mention that he has defeated death) he must be the one who will rebuild the Davidic dynasty, which has been lying in ruins for centuries.  Although foreign powers have controlled the people of Israel for much of the last six hundred years, the prophets foretold that the kingdom eventually would be reconstituted and become even more glorious than it was in the days of David and Solomon.  Not only would this kingdom reunite Israel, it would also gather all peoples to worship the one true God.

At the Last Supper, Jesus spoke of this renewed Israel and of the apostles playing a leadership role in it (see Luke 22:29-30).  Now, after having spent forty days in training with the resurrected King talking about the kingdom, the apostles anxiously wait for their mission to begin. That is why they ask if now is the time for the kingdom to be restored.

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 and 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.

On one level, these words provide an itinerary for their mission and an outline for the rest of the Acts of the Apostles: Their proclamation of the kingdom will begin in Jerusalem (Acts 2-7), move out to the regions of Judea and Samaria (Acts 8-12), and then spread throughout much of the known world, even to the capital city of Rome (Acts 13-28).

On another level, by announcing the apostles’ mission to go out to all the nations, Jesus answers their question about the restoration of the kingdom.   They will be the ones to fulfill the worldwide mission of the kingdom, not him.  In fact, the kingdom will be restored and its universal reign extended precisely through their own witness to the Gospel, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

This is not the restoration of Israel they expected; indeed, it is something much more glorious.  They will change the course of global history.

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 is very brief.  When their responsibilities had been sufficiently explained, Jesus was taken from their sight; a visible departure.

Many times throughout salvation history, God has manifested his divine presence to Israel in the form of a cloud.  It was God’s cloud of glory that filled the sanctuary in the desert, filled the temple in Jerusalem, and overshadowed Christ during his transfiguration.  Now a cloud of glory lifts Jesus up and brings him to heaven in triumph (see 1 Timothy 3:16).

Christ’s return to the Father on a cloud also signals the fulfillment of an important prophecy from the Old Testament.  The prophet Daniel had a vision of a “son of man” figure who appeared victorious over his enemies and was carried to God on “the clouds of heaven” to receive a worldwide kingdom that would last forever:

I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)

Jesus is the “son of man” who in his exaltation is presented before God the Father, the Ancient of Days, and is given an everlasting kingdom that will reign over all nations (see CCC 664).

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.  This is 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) sets some people apart from the rest) it is clear that union with Christ is what sets Christians apart.

The revelation and enlightenment referred to here provide 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.

Ultimately, 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 – Hebrews 9:24-28, 10:19-23

Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands,
a copy of the true one, but heaven itself,
that he might now appear before God on our behalf. 
Not that he might offer himself repeatedly,
as the high priest enters each year into the sanctuary
with blood that is not his own;
if that were so, he would have had to suffer repeatedly
from the foundation of the world. 
But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages
to take away sin by his sacrifice. 
Just as it is appointed that men and women die once,
and after this the judgment, so also Christ,
offered once to take away the sins of many,
will appear a second time, not to take away sin
but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since through the blood of Jesus 
we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary 
by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil, 
that is, his flesh,
and since we have “a great priest over the house of God,” 
let us approach with a sincere heart and in absolute trust, 
with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience 
and our bodies washed in pure water.
Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope, 
for he who made the promise is trustworthy.

Today’s reading from Hebrews seeks to show the unsurpassed excellence of the sacrifice of Christ, which is contrasted with the previous sacrifices offered in the Temple.  It is based on an understanding of the significance of the temple and of the ritual that was performed within it.

Temples were typically constructed on sites that were already considered sacred, places that claimed to have had a manifestation of the divine.  Such an occurrence was thought to create an opening between heaven, earth, and the underworld.  This opening, called the “navel of the earth,” or the axis mundi, made communication between heaven and earth possible.

Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, a copy of the true one, but heaven itself,

The temple was built according to the imago mundi, the pattern of the universe.  Its construction and decoration included representations of heavenly bodies and natural creation, demonstrating the connection between heaven and earth.  The people believed that when they entered the earthly temple they were also entering the realm of heaven.

Here, the exalted Jesus enters the true sanctuary of heaven, not an earthly temple patterned after it.

that he might now appear before God on our behalf. Not that he might offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters each year into the sanctuary with blood that is not his own; if that were so, he would have had to suffer repeatedly from the foundation of the world. But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages to take away sin by his sacrifice.

The cultic system, established to enable the people to participate in cosmic events by reenacting them, was only able to actualize redemption for their sin for short periods of time.  This is why the ritual of the Day of Atonement was performed year after year: it was imperfect.

In contrast, Jesus offered himself once and for all.  Since Christ was fully human and fully divine, the blood he offered was the blood of God, and therefore had infinite value.  It was a perfect sacrifice.

Christ’s sacrifice, like all cosmic acts, was unrepeatable.  Our earthly ritual of the Mass makes present this eternal sacrifice, but there is no need for Jesus himself to repeat it.

Just as it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment,

This is the unalterable decree of God concerning men.  They must die, and their soul returns to God to be judged, in order to determine its eternal state.

so also Christ, offered once to take away the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.

In Jesus’ first coming, he had no sin of his own, but he took the form of sinful flesh and bore upon him the sins of the world.

His second appearance will be without the charge of taking away sin, having already fulfilled that mission.  In his second coming, Christ will perfect the holiness of those that are awaiting him, thus completing their salvation.

Note the distinguishing character of true believers is that they are looking for Christ.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since through the blood of Jesus we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil, that is, his flesh, 

On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would go behind the veil into the inner sanctuary and stand before the divine presence.  There he would incense the mercy seat, believed to be the place on which God was enthroned and from which mercy was dispensed.  He would then sprinkle the blood of the sacrificed bull on this mercy seat in an act of atonement.

The author claims that through his bloody sacrifice, Christ, the great high priest, enables us to enter boldly into the real inner sanctuary, the presence of the all-holy God.

and since we have “a great priest over the house of God,” let us approach with a sincere heart and in absolute trust, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. 

Furthermore, our hearts will be sprinkled with and made clean through the blood of Christ.  The reference to cleansing the body with pure water is probably an allusion to baptism.

Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope, for he who made the promise is trustworthy.

The reading ends with an exhortation to hold fast to the confession of faith (homología).  This implies acceptance of, commitment to, and obedience to the gospel.

If the people of an earlier time trusted that God would accept, through the hands of their high priest, the offering of the blood of a bull, how much more should the people of a new age trust that the blood of Christ would accomplish atonement for their sins.

Gospel – Luke 24:46-53

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer
and rise from the dead on the third day
and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins,
would be preached in his name
to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things. 
And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you;
but stay in the city
until you are clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany,
raised his hands, and blessed them.
As he blessed them he parted from them
and was taken up to heaven.
They did him homage
and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy,
and they were continually in the temple praising God.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus delivers one last instruction to his disciples before ascending into heaven.

As noted for the first reading, Luke and Acts form two continuous volumes of the history of the Church. The ascension, which we celebrate today, forms the hinge point between the two volumes. Our first reading was the story of the ascension from Acts; here in the gospel is the ascension story from Luke.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

Jesus states that his death and resurrection, as well as the basic content of his preaching, had been foretold. This places Jesus at the heart of the tradition of ancient Israel, a key point for the gospel writer.

Since there is little if any explicit mention of these things in the early writings, this reference must flow from a certain type of biblical interpretation.  Rather than regarding the earlier traditions as foreshadowing later events, the believers probably now understood those earlier traditions in the light of the later events.  This would be particularly true with regard to the titles that were used of Jesus, namely Son of God, Son of Man, Savior, and especially Servant of God.  Christological significance was read back into these Israelite traditions, thus reinforcing the promise-fulfillment motif already explicit there.

You are witnesses of these things.

There is no question about the veracity of these events.  In Luke 1:2, the disciples are described as eyewitnesses (aútóptai) to them; here Jesus tells them they must also be witnesses (mártyres) to them, testifying to the authenticity of their religious significance.  They are to proclaim to all the nations that he did indeed die and rise, that he did preach repentance and forgiveness of sins.  And they must present these realities as the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation.

This last instruction of Jesus was meant not only to bring the disciples themselves to resurrection faith, but also to commission them to bring this faith to the world.

And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

A reference to the promised coming of the Holy Spirit, which will occur at Pentecost.

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, raised his hands, and blessed them. As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven.

The actual account of the ascension is brief.  Jesus leads the disciples to Bethany, he raises his hands in blessing in the manner of priestly benediction, and he is taken from their sight.

Unlike the account in Acts, there are no final words, there is no heavenly cloud, there are no angelic companions.

They did him homage

The disciples seem to finally understand what has happened, for they fall on their faces in homage to Jesus.  This is the first and only time Luke says that the disciples worship him.

and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God.

Note that there is neither grief nor fear on the part of the disciples.  In fact, they return rejoicing and continue worshiping publicly in the Temple.

Connections and Themes

The feast of the Ascension is a kind of liminal moment in the Easter season.  It is a time between times; a moment when we have left one place in our journey but have not yet arrived at a second.  While the narratives that describe the ascension fit well into the unfolding story of redemption, the feast celebrates one aspect of the resurrection itself, namely the exaltation of Jesus.  The readings help u 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.  In many of these accounts, Jesus seems to have been saying, “I am the same one walked with you before.  This is the body that you have always known.”  Today we stand awestruck, watching Jesus ascend into the clouds of heaven, there to be enthroned at the right hand of God.  Today is a day to be 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.  Like the conquering creator-God, 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, 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 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s