Luke is the only New Testament author who describes Jesus’ ascension after his resurrection, although his departure from this world is assumed in the other writings. John tells not so much what happened but explains the results of Jesus’ departure and sending of the Holy Spirit. Luke tells the story twice, the second time in the beginning of Acts of the Apostles. Because the gospel reading is always last in the liturgy, we hear the later account before the first.
In many ways, Luke links the two stories he has to tell, the Gospel tells of Jesus in his ministry and Acts takes up the work of the early Church. The passion-resurrection-ascension-coming-again is recounted in the first, and will be preached in the following book. Jerusalem serves as a geographic locating point, but the symbolism is more important than the locality. In the Gospel, Luke uses Jerusalem as Jesus’ goal during his ministry, and he ends his earthly time there. From Jerusalem the Church will spread ‘throughout the world’ – in Acts this will be symbolized as Rome, then the imperial centre of the Mediterranean/European world.
The opening verse recalls the dedication of the Gospel, and summarizes its message very briefly. Luke stresses the promise of the Holy Spirit, just as he had emphasized through the Gospel the actions of the Spirit in the life of Jesus, and will show in Acts how the Spirit guided the early Christians in their ministry.
John the Baptist had an important role to play in the Gospel, beginning with the prediction of his birth in the first chapter. Here at the beginning of Acts, John’s prophecy is remembered. ‘They’ who question Jesus are not specified but likely to include both the Eleven Apostles and the ‘others’ who gathered around them after the Resurrection.
The disciples have a concern: Jesus had predicted the Last Days with his coming again, and they expected the new ‘Kingdom of God’ to come with him. They may only have been thinking of the earthly Jewish kingdom restored, which was widely expected in the End Times. Knowing that Jesus is leaving now with the promise of return, they are wondering how soon that will be. We have evidence in other parts of the New Testament, such as the Letters to the Thessalonians, that many did expect in their lifetime to see the Parousia, or final days, and the question may have been a lively one in the community Luke was writing for. ‘Times or dates’: The two Greek words indicate, ‘time’s duration and the opportune moments both of which are God’s domain and beyond human inquiry.’ (Richard J. Dillon). In his refusal to say ‘when’, Jesus stresses what should be their focus now: first to receive the power of the Spirit, then with that guidance they are witness to Jesus and bring others to belief. How they responded to this challenge Luke will show in the chapters to follow in Acts.
Another link comes with the ‘two men in white’, the same phrase used in the Gospel (24:4) for the messengers who appear to the women in the empty tomb when Jesus has risen. The white or brilliant clothing indicates a being from heaven. In both books, the two men begin with a question that indicates a radical change; ‘Why look for the living (Christ) among the dead?’ And now, ‘Why look towards the sky?’ What has happened before is over – now they must be ready for what is coming.
Psalm 46/47:2-3, 6-9
With the reference to God ‘going up’ this clearly is a good choice for the Ascension. Some scholars think that the psalm was used for a feast of ‘enthronement’ in the Temple, when there might have been a procession ‘going up’ with the Ark of the Covenant, representing the presence of God among the people. The psalm emphasizes the kingship of the Lord, which the Psalmist sees as over all peoples and not just Israel. This universality was a theme of Luke’s gospel. The title ‘Most High’ was used by Semitic religions for the chief of the gods, but Israel took it over as describing the one and only God they worshipped.
Hebrews 9:24-28, 10:19-23
While the other two readings describe the Ascension from the view of the disciples who see Jesus leaving our earth, the author of Hebrews writes, as it were, from the view of Heaven where Jesus has gone to the presence of the Father. This writer – no doubt addressing those Christians who were Jews and familiar with the writings of the Old Testament – uses examples and imagery drawn from the Jewish bible. A special comparison is to the Temple and the sacrifices which were offered there. Here Jesus is shown as superior to the old priesthood in two ways: one is that the sacrifice of his own blood really did take away all sin which was only symbolic in animal sacrifices. Secondly, it did not have to be repeated as did the old sacrifices which were made over and over.
Jesus having offered himself and risen to the Father has opened the way for his followers to enter after him. The ‘curtain’ recalls the barrier that separated the holiest part of the temple from the outer courts. In a striking comparison, Jesus is the curtain which is now open for us to go through. He draws a lesson from this to be sincere and faithful, knowing our sins forgiven according to Jesus’ promise.
In the gospel, the Ascension follows directly on from Jesus’ appearance after his Resurrection, and so in that context it could be seen as taking place shortly after Easter Day. Joseph A. Fitzmyer writes, ‘Why Luke has dated the ascension of Jesus in these two different ways no one will ever know.’ But it does alert us to realizing that the truth is not always best expressed in factual language, but in symbols that can lead us to a deeper understanding.
These verses end Luke’s Gospel, beginning with a summary of the most recent events, the climax of Jesus’ life and mission. He then reminds the listeners that they have witnessed him as the foretold Messiah. Now they are to wait for their empowerment, but here he does not here specify the sending of the Spirit. Although he speaks indirectly, the words of preaching forgiveness in Jesus’ name are the equivalent of the ‘commissioning’ which is spelled out more directly in the reading from Acts.
This is the first time Jesus is said to ‘bless’ his disciples and it is also the first time that they are said to ‘worship’ him. The blessing suits a farewell. The worship becomes possible now that they understand that he is truly the Son of God. They are ‘full of joy’ and express this by praising God publicly. Luke opened his gospel in the Temple with the priest Zachary of the old covenant offering the sacrifices detailed by Moses. He closes his account back in the Temple, but now something is different. It is the nucleus of the ‘New Covenant’ who offer praise to God, as they wait the coming of the Spirit. There is a sense of expectation which Luke will fulfil in his sequel, The Acts of the Apostles.
The time between Ascension and Pentecost offers us a time to pray for the renewal of the power of the Spirit in our lives and our Christian communities. The number of nine days gave rise to the prayer form of a ‘novena’ – which takes its name from the Latin word for ‘nine’.