May 21/24, 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 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 speaks of it is 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 celebrate not so much a departure as the living and lasting presence of he who at his birth was called “Emmanuel” — “God with us.” Jesus, the living head of his body the Church, remains always with us as he promised, now in a new way. In fact, by this celebration we proclaim that the risen Jesus enters into the fullness of the glory given him by his Father. For those who follow him, his presence with us can make our earth, our daily life, a 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.”

The Acts of the Apostles has been called a sequel to the gospels, as it takes over from where Luke’s gospel leaves off.

Saint 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,

That is, 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.

Luke begins Acts by summarizing what he wrote in the gospel.

The event of the ascension is described at the end of the Gospel of Luke and is again recounted here. The ascension thus becomes a hinge between the two works; it is 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 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).  The number is not meant to be precise, but to convey that the span of time was appointed by God. By using the number, the author also 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 are 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.

With these words, Luke is also summarizing 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.

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 Ephesians 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, which he worked in Christ,

Paul then goes on to describe the exercise of God’s might that God has revealed through Jesus Christ, putting the blessings referenced just previously in the context of God’s great power.

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: a dramatic moment.

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.

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.”

On the Feast of the Ascension, we read Matthew’s “great commissioning.” 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 number of disciples highlights the defection of Judas.

In Matthew’s gospel, the apostles are to go to Galilee, rather than to Jerusalem, to meet the risen Lord. Recall that Galilee is the place where Jesus’ ministry began.

to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.

Just as God revealed himself to Moses on a mountain, so Jesus revealed himself to Peter, James, and John on a mountain at the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1).

Just as Moses taught the first law from a mountain, so Jesus taught the fulfillment of that law from a mountain (Matthew 5:1).

Moses’ authority was from God. Only if Jesus’ authority is also from God is it a fulfillment of covenant love for the Jews to embrace Christ. Therefore, Matthew places this culminating scene on a mountain. Matthew consistently emphasizes Jesus as the new Moses in order to help his Jewish audience integrate their tradition into the new understanding brought about by the events surrounding Jesus.

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

Their worship shows their faith, yet this is mingled with doubt: a common psychological experience that 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,

Since Jesus has been given all power, he can delegate his authority to his disciples.

and make disciples of all nations,

The commission is straightforward and all-encompassing, presenting a daunting challenge.

By the time Matthew writes his gospel (85 AD), the knowledge that covenant love is not limited to the Jews has been revealed through events. The Spirit led the pilgrim Church to the realization that the privilege of being baptized into covenant love is for everyone, not just for the Jews. All social and cultural boundaries have been 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 experienced tension as it moved from an exclusively Jewish context into the Gentile world. Today, we still struggle with the diversity at the heart of enculturation.

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.

Two subordinate clauses 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,

Baptism literally involves being plunged into the life of God. This rite of initiation is performed “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” — to do anything to someone “in the name of” another is to signify that one belongs to the person or persons named.

By the time Matthew is writing, baptism has replaced circumcision, and the concept of one God, still maintained, has been radically changed to a trinitarian concept of God.

This is actually 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.

We can tell from the wording of the commissioning that Matthew is teaching his Jewish audience that Jesus and his disciples have the authority to change what had been taught through Moses and the law.

The apostles are not simply to be disciples but to make disciples. They are to teach what Jesus taught, not just what the law taught, and they are to teach all nations.

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 amazing command to baptize and teach all nations is possible of fulfillment because of 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).

Matthew began his gospel with the promise of Jesus as Emmanuel, “God with us”; here, at the end of the gospel, he concludes with this strengthening assurance of Jesus. A more magnificent conclusion couldn’t be found.

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 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 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.