May 18/21, 2020: Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (A)

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 the United States, all ecclesiastical provinces have commuted the celebration of the Ascension to the Sunday following the fortieth day of Easter 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 speaks of it as having apostolic origin, and in such a way that shows it was the universal observance of the Church long before his time.

In the liturgy, we focus not so much on Jesus’ departure but on his living and lasting presence with us, now in a new way. By this celebration, we also proclaim that the risen Jesus enters into the fullness of the glory given him by the Father.

For those who follow Christ, his presence in our daily lives can make our earthly existence its own kind of heaven.

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.”

Saint Luke, an educated man and a physician by profession, was meticulous and orderly. In writing the Acts of the Apostles, he set out 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 Acts of the Apostles has been called a sequel to the gospels, as it takes over from where Luke’s gospel (“the first book”) leaves off.

Theophilus,

The identity of Theophilus is unknown. He may have been a patron of Luke as an author, someone who helped finance and circulate his writings. Because the name means “lover of God,” some scholars believe it refers to the Christian community as a whole. Theophilus 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.

This preface to the Acts of the Apostles is known as a proem. A proem sets the tone of a work, provides context, and engages the reader’s attention. In this case, those objectives are accomplished by repeating the story of the ascension, which was the story Luke used to end his gospel.

The ascension, then, serves as a hinge between the two works; it is the transition from the earthly ministry of Jesus (Gospel of Luke) to the launch of the early Church (Acts of the Apostles).

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.

It’s unclear whether the number of days mentioned here is meant to be symbolic or precise. Forty in Hebrew numerology is a number representing transition or change. The great flood lasted forty days (Genesis 7:17); Moses was instructed in the Law on the mountain for forty days (Exodus 34:28); Elijah journeyed toward the mountain of God for forty days (1 Kings 19:8).

Regardless of how it is interpreted, the number forty connects Jesus with the expectations of Israel and it shows that the span of time was appointed by God.

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

Jesus gives the apostles instructions in preparation for Pentecost, beginning with a directive to wait in Jerusalem.

This creates another key connection to Israel. Isaiah 2:3 states: “Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us concerning His ways and that we may walk in His paths.’ For the law will go forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”

Launching the apostle’s global mission from Israel’s sacred city is an important fulfillment of this prophecy.

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?”

Many Jews associated the coming of the Holy Spirit with the end times because of Joel 2:28-29, which says that God will pour out his Spirit on all people in the last days.

Because of this context, it was natural for the disciples 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 or 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 last 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. The timing of these events related to the end of the world is 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.”

The coming of the Holy Spirit that Jesus is referring to is not indicative of the end of the world. Rather, it is the dawning of the new messianic age, the time between the resurrection and the time of ultimate fulfillment of God’s kingdom.

The messianic age is both a present reality and a future hope, as Christians are called to participate in the kingdom of God through faith in Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, while also looking forward to the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption when Jesus returns.

These last words from Jesus assure the apostles 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.

With these words, Luke is also foreshadowing the story he will tell in the Acts of the Apostles: it is the story of the apostles’ witness to Christ first in Jerusalem, then throughout Judea and Samaria, and finally to the ends of the then-known world, Rome.

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.

Clouds are often used in scripture to represent the presence and power of God (Exodus 13:21-22, 1 Kings 8:10-11, Matthew 17:5). The image of a cloud also conveys a sense of mystery, awe, and divine transcendence.

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?

Two mysterious men appear. Their sudden appearance and their white clothing suggest that they are angels, although this is not stated.

These two closely resemble the two men 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 men’s words indicate that Jesus’ ascension is a prefigurement of the parousia. They seem to imply that the Second Coming will be a visible event, just as his ascension was visible to the disciples, although as is often the case with prophetic statements, it’s unclear exactly what this 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.

Today’s second reading is an intercessory prayer from Saint Paul. He asks God to grant Christians supernatural wisdom to recognize the greatness of the blessings he has given them through his Son.

Paul’s thoughtfulness is a beautiful example: we too should pray for those entrusted to our care.

May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, 

Christ has become our central reference point. God was described in the Old Testament as “the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” He is now referred to as “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

the Father of glory,

The glory of God is God’s supremacy, his omnipotence, and the boundless richness of his character. When revealed, this glory fills man with wonder.

give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him.

Paul asks that Christians be given the spiritual enlightenment to understand the mysteries of Christ.

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 enlightenment requested is threefold:

  • that believers may know the hope of the calling they received from God,
  • that they understand the riches of their spiritual inheritance, and
  • that they see the surpassing greatness of God’s power.

The verb forms Paul uses indicate that these actions have been completed and the results of those actions are effected in the present. In other words, 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, which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens,

Paul calls upon the power of God to accomplish these things — the same power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him at God’s right hand in heaven.

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

Paul marvels at the exaltation of Christ: he now sits at God’s right hand, a place of authority and favor of the person they were sitting next to (Psalm 110:1, 1 Kings 2:19, Matthew 20:21).

And this honored seat of Christ is high above all other heavenly creatures. “Every principality, authority, power, and dominion” are likely references to classifications of angels (see Romans 8:38; Colossians 1:16), who were created through the wisdom of God and considered superior to humans.

With the bodily ascension of Christ into heaven, a human creature has now been placed above them: a dramatic moment.

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

Christ is above not only the angels but every power, present or future. His reign is universal: it is eternal and extends over all.

And he put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, 

Here we see the familiar metaphor of the Church as Christ’s body.

Christ is appointed by God as the head of the Church, which is his body. As members of Christ’s body, believers share in his exaltation.

the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.

From this place of honor at God’s right hand, Christ’s glory radiates throughout the universe.

Today the Church glorifies the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, enthroned at God’s right hand, as we wait in joyful expectation for the coming of his Spirit on Pentecost.

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.”

This year on the Feast of the Ascension, we read Matthew’s account of The Great Commission. Throughout the liturgical year, we have seen how Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses who has authority from God to give a new law. In today’s gospel, we see the fulfillment of this theme.

The eleven disciples went to Galilee,

The reference to only eleven disciples acknowledges the tragic defection of Judas Iscariot, who had hanged himself (Matthew 27:5).

In the verses just prior to this passage, Jesus told the disciples to meet him in Galilee, where his ministry had begun (Matthew 28:1). This helped assure any doubters among them that he was the same Jesus whom they had previously known.

to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.

The specific mountain in Galilee where this occurred is not known, but the fact that it did occur on a mountain underscores the divine nature of the event and emphasizes Matthew’s theme of Jesus as the new Moses:

  • In Exodus 3:1-6, God revealed himself to Moses for the first time in the burning bush on Mount Horeb. This correlates with Jesus revealing his divine glory to Peter, James, and John on a mountain at the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1).
  • Moses taught the first law after receiving the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai (see Deuteronomy 5:22-27). Jesus taught the fulfillment of that law from a mountain (Matthew 5:1).

Moses’ authority was from God. In order for the Jewish people to embrace Christ, they need to understand that Jesus’ authority is also from God. Only then will they be able to integrate their Jewish tradition into the new understanding of God received through Christ.

When they saw him, they worshiped,

A remarkable moment: This is the first time in scripture that the apostles worship Jesus as God.

However, they weren’t the first to do so. The women who visited Jesus’ tomb (and found it empty) offered the same homage to him when they encountered him on their return (Matthew 28:9).

but they doubted.

The Greek word distázō is often translated into English as “doubt,” “hesitate,” or “waver.” It can refer to a state of uncertainty, indecision, or disbelief. This verb occurs elsewhere in the New Testament only in Matthew 14:31, where it is associated with Peter’s being “of little faith.”

It would seem that the apostles have faith, but their faith is not as deep as it should be. In other words, they see Jesus and worship him, but not with full understanding. This common psychological experience gives hope to modern Christians.

This candid mention of doubt recalls 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.

Jesus confirms the faith of his worshippers by declaring that he is the Son of Man from Daniel 7:14, who was exalted by God and granted eschatological authority.

This confirmation is also meant for Matthew’s Jewish audience, who wanted to be faithful to the tradition of their ancestors. Matthew is once again reassuring them that Jesus’ authority originates from the same God their ancestors worshipped.

Go, therefore,

Employing the divine authority that he just declared, Jesus commissions them.

and make disciples of all nations,

The Great Commission, as it has come to be known, is straightforward and all-encompassing: Go and make disciples of all nations.

This directive from Christ transcends all boundaries and obstacles. All are called to Christ regardless of ethnicity, social class, gender, or location. The universality of this commission has challenged Christians from the very moment it was given.

In addition to the cultural and political challenges of such a commission, the scope itself is intimidating. It must have been simply overwhelming for eleven humble Galileans to be instructed to go out and conquer the world.

Jesus will go on to explain how this is to be done: by baptizing and teaching.

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

Jesus gives the apostles the power to baptize, that is, to receive people into the Church by plunging them into the mystery of God’s name and thereby initiating a new life in Christ.

The formula Jesus gives for baptism is perhaps the clearest New Testament expression of trinitarian belief, which designates the effect of baptism: the union of the baptized person with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The trinitarian formula also reinforces Jesus’ earlier teachings:

  • Jesus spoke of God as his father (Matthew 11:25-27) and indicated the intimate relationship between them.
  • In John 10:30, Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.”
  • Jesus also spoke of the Spirit who came upon him at his baptism (Matthew 3:16) and through whose power he cast out demons (12:28-32).
  • In John 14:16, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to his disciples after his departure. This indicates that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person who will continue to work alongside the Father and Son in the lives of believers.

teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

Jesus also commissions them to teach others.

This teaching is moral rather than doctrinal: they are to teach people how to observe Jesus’ commandments, a radically different way of life.

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

Fulfilling this overwhelming task of baptizing and teaching all nations is only feasible with Jesus’ promise of continual support. The gift of the Holy Spirit is not explicitly mentioned here, in notable contrast to John 20:22 and Acts 2:1-4 (see also Matthew 18:20).

This verse concludes the entire Gospel of Matthew. This closing echoes its introduction, where he explained that Jesus is Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23), “God with us.” Although he will physically depart from them, Jesus will continue to be with us — that is, Emmanuel — until the end of time.

A more magnificent conclusion couldn’t be found.

Connections and Themes

Feast of the Ascension.  The feast of the Ascension is a unique moment in the Easter season, representing a transitional period between two points in our journey. Though the narratives surrounding the ascension fit well into the story of redemption, the celebration of the feast itself primarily centers around one aspect of the resurrection: the exaltation of Jesus. The readings help us focus on this theological point while commemorating a significant turning point in the life of the church, specifically the enthronement of Christ in heaven and the emergence of the new body of Christ on earth.

The enthronement of Christ.  Throughout the Easter season, the focus of the readings has been on the appearances of Jesus, which were meant to strengthen the belief of Christians in his bodily resurrection. The emphasis in these passages was often on specific physical attributes, such as his ability to eat food and his invitation to Thomas to touch him, all with the underlying message that this was the same Jesus whom the apostles had known and walked with.

Having recognized the risen body of Christ, we are now filled with awe as we witness Jesus ascend in his glorified humanity into the clouds of heaven, where he will be enthroned at the right hand of God. We are overwhelmed by the reality of the divinity of the one who we had come to know as one of us.

The new body of Christ.  The work that Christ began on earth is now carried forward by his new body, the Church. Through the Church, Jesus still teaches, heals, comforts, forgives, and includes. We are not left to our own devices; we have each other, and as a whole, we form the new body of Christ.

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