We have heard in the Sundays of Easter time, how Jesus in his new resurrected body appeared unexpectedly to various disciples, but that time would come to an end. The word used for this was ‘ascending’ to the Father. The idea of ‘going up’ fits the world as it was known before modern astronomy and visualises Heaven as ‘up above’ our usual experience. This ascent of Jesus is mentioned in various ways in the New Testament, but it is only Luke who dramatizes the scene – and he does it twice, at the end of his Gospel and the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles.
Acts of the Apostles 1:1-11
The end of Luke’s Gospel has a few verses about Jesus ‘carried up into heaven’. After promising the disciples ‘power from on high’. The disciples joyfully return to Jerusalem and says they were continually praying in the temple where Luke has set the beginning of his Gospel. We don’t know at what point he decided to write the ‘sequel’, an account of the early days following the Resurrection but he clearly links the two works together as part of an ongoing account. Since Acts is the only such history in the New Testament we are blessed to have it.
Luke gives the numbering of ‘40 days’ after Easter, and this led to the centuries of celebrating the Ascension on a Thursday. It recent times scholars have seen forty as a symbolic number in the Bible, and some dioceses may celebrate the feast on a Sunday to allow more people to celebrate the full sequence of Passion-Resurrection-Ascension-Pentecost.
Luke dedicates his second volume, as did his Gospel, to ‘Theophilus’ who seems to be a Roman official interested in Jesus but since the name means ‘beloved of God’ some suggest it may be meant to include all concerned with God’s revelation. He ties this in to his previous work with a summary of the Gospel, then highlights the theme from the opening of Jesus’ ministry when John the Baptist predicted the coming of the ‘more powerful one who would baptize in Holy Spirit’. Jesus tells them that predicted time is at hand and they are to wait for this to happen in Jerusalem.
Luke is the only evangelist to record the question of the disciples about ‘restoring the kingdom to Israel’. Their curiosity shows that despite all the teaching of Jesus about the kingdom of God, they are still hoping for an earthly return of a Davidic king for the Jewish people who have been living so long under Roman rule – and perhaps as well, they think important political roles for themselves? Jesus evades the question: whatever God’s future plan is, it is not something they need to know for they are about to be sent out to preach Jesus and his kingdom now. They will be given a very different sort of power than the earthly kind they have been thinking of. It also signals that Luke’s own interest in Acts is not with the geographic locality of the ancient Holy Land but in the spread of the Church through the Roman empire, which for him meant ‘the ends of the earth.’ In our time, we know how much farther the Good News has spread – including continents unknown a millennium ago.
In telling of Jesus’ Ascension, Luke brings in some of the images he has used before, as well as the ‘cloud’ which so often means the presence of God in the Old Testament. The ‘coming of the Son of Man on a cloud’ occurs in Daniel 7:13-14 and is also an image of the second coming of Jesus as Mark describes it. The ‘two men’ recall the two men in the empty tomb who told the women of the Resurrection and so are also heavenly messengers. In both cases, this seems to show that although there was physical evidence for the disciples to see, they needed an explanation from above for their deeper understanding of what has happened. By presenting all these details to us, Luke gives assurance for our own faith.
The early mention of the Holy Spirit is a hint of the role played in Acts which has lead to it being nicknamed ‘The Gospel of the Holy Spirit’.
Psalm 46:2-3, 6-9 – in some Bible Psalm 47
This hymn celebrates God as king, and some think was used by the Hebrews in a feast of ‘enthronement’, which symbolized God’s kingship in the image of human kings who ‘ascend’ their thrones in the midst of great celebration. The liturgy picks this for the idea of ‘ascending’, and the choice also indicates the Christian belief in ‘Christ the King’, which will be the theme of the next reading.
This selection shows not only what the Ascension meant in terms of Jesus position both in heaven and still on earth, but also how it connects us to the power of God available through Christ. The image of ‘head of the body which is the church’ was an image much used by St Paul and shows the vital connection we have to Christ, without which we would be helpless as a headless torso. We not only act with power in our present lives, but are filled with hope of living completely in the glory first given to Jesus in his resurrection and ascension to ‘the right hand’. ‘Sitting on the right’ was an image taken from human practices of importance and intimacy, and was a common metaphor for the close connection of Jesus in power with God the Father. The writer of this letter has piled up symbols in a joyful exuberance to reach beyond words to a reality beyond human imagination – but not beyond hope.
Although this passage appears at the end of the Gospel of Mark in our Bibles and is part of the Catholic canon of inspired scripture, most scholars today believe it was not written by the same person who composed the earlier parts of the gospel. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary explains that it ‘differs in vocabulary and style from the rest of the Gospel, is absent from the best and earliest manuscripts now available’. It is ‘most likely’ Second Century collection of appearance stories, based primarily on Luke. Because Mark proper ends abruptly at 16:8 with the announcement at the tomb of Jesus’ resurrection without an account of the disciples seeing him, some early readers thought it needed filling out, and several different endings are found in other manuscripts. It is possible the gospel was left unfinished for unknown reasons, or that Mark’s final verses were somehow lost, but these are only guesses. Some modern scholars think Mark intended to end at 16:8, but that too is a guess.
This ending, however, fits well with the feast of the Ascension, and the previous reading from Acts. The last words are a summing up, in very brief form, of the story Luke tells in Acts. ‘Preaching and signs’ also points us ahead to Pentecost, and we can associate ourselves this coming week with the waiting period of the first disciples, we praying for the Holy Spirit to come to us in our time, as well. (The custom of making a ‘Novena’ or nine days of prayer for a specific purpose is based on the nine days counted in Acts between the Ascension and Pentecost.)
‘Come Holy Spirit and fill the hearts of your people and kindle in them the fire of your love.’