Some may be celebrating the Ascension on the previous Thursday. In England and Wales, as in various other parts of the world, the feast has been moved to the Sunday to make it easier for everyone to attend mass.
Only Luke of the four Gospels tells details of Jesus’ leaving this world to return to the Father in eternal glory – and Luke tells it twice, first at the end of his gospel and then at the beginning of the Book of Acts. It is a bridge between Jesus life and the history of the first days of the Church.
The opening verse of dedication clearly associates the book of Acts to the author as the Gospel of Luke. If you read Luke 24:50, you will see that the details of the Ascension differ slightly in each telling, and this alerts us to the Bible’s way of presenting truth through story. The literal details are not always what matters; they are used to bring out the essence of deep experience, often something that goes deeper than ordinary words can describe.
As he opens his new work, Luke also makes a link to the event near the beginning of Luke’s gospel which tell of the baptism of John and the promise that the ‘one to come after John’ would ‘baptize with Holy Spirit’.
All through Jesus’ ministry, most people expected the Messiah to restore the ‘Kingdom’, seen as the promise to David of an everlasting dynasty which needed to be revived. It was a hard lesson for the disciples – and one not accepted by his opponents – that the Kingship Jesus promised would come through the suffering and death of the Messiah. Now that this event has passed, the disciples are again eager to be rid of the oppressive rule of Rome. Jesus does not answer them with a date, but calls them to think beyond their local concerns for now they are part of a ministry that will extend to the whole word. They are not to expect royal honours but be witnesses to all that Jesus did in his building a ‘Kingdom’ of repentance, love and healing – even with them also suffering – and not the kind of Kingship that they have still been expecting.
‘Two men in white’: at the tomb after the Resurrection ‘two men in dazzling garments’ are seen by the women and told of Jesus’ rising. These figures, though seen like humans, are understood as angelic appearances. In both instances, they bring a message from God to explain the event. Here the promise is that Jesus now no longer physically present in his glorified body will come back at an unnamed future time, something that we continue to profess in our Christian faith.
Psalm 46/47:2-3, 6-9
The Psalm is most apt to this feast with the words of ‘God going up’. Historically this may have been a feast in the Jerusalem temple with processions celebrating ‘the enthronement of God in heaven’. (New Jerome Biblical Commentary) The call for all peoples to praise the Lord, not just the Hebrews, will be more fully realized in Jesus’ call in Acts for the disciples to be witnesses ‘to the ends of the earth’.
This Letter opens with a prayer-blessing that is poetic and hymn-like in its exuberance, celebrating Jesus’ place in heaven. We have the promise of enjoying this eternal presence, and that also is a basis of a deep faith in this life. The note of joy is one that Pope Francis reminds us should be an important part of Christian life.
After some weeks of hearing from John, we return to the gospel in focus in Year A. Matthew’s gospel ends with this short account of Jesus’ last resurrection appearance to a large group of disciples. ‘Arranged to meet’: The Jerusalem Bible translation is misleading – as is going to the mountain was some kind of mutual agreement. Instead, in verse 7 slightly before this, it was the angels at the tomb telling the women of his resurrection. They are sent to tell the disciples to go to Galilee where Jesus would be there to meet them. Mountains – rarely given a specific name – have played a significant and symbolic role in this gospel, from ‘the mountain’ in Chapter 5-6 as the site of his first preaching, a place of prayer (14:23) of the ‘Transfiguration’ (17:1-15), and his prediction at the end of the world on Mount of Olives (24:3). So it is not surprising his final revelation and farewell would also be on ‘a mountain’ he chose. He commissions them to ‘make disciples of all nations’ – compare to the words in Acts. But he also stresses the sacrament of baptism, in words which unite Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Matthew does not describe Jesus leaving them, but concludes with words of infinite consolation and empowerment for us still living: ‘I am with you always….’