Although this feast was sometimes celebrated on a Sunday, this year in England and Wales it will be on Thursday, with the 40 days Luke counts from Easter in Acts.
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, and this alerts us to the Bible’s way of presenting truth. The literal details are not always what matters; a picture is presented to bring out the essence of an 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 the gospel which tells of the baptism of John and the promise that the ‘one to come after John’ would ‘baptize with Holy Spirit and with fire’.
In the time of Jesus’ ministry, most people expected the Messiah to restore the ‘Kingdom’, as an heir to the promise made to David of an everlasting dynasty. This would have required the overthrow of the Roman occupation. It was a hard lesson for even the disciples to accept that the ‘Kingship’ Jesus promised would come through the suffering and death of the Messiah and would not include worldly power or territory. Now that the suffering and death of Jesus has been followed by his resurrection, the disciples are still eager to see a new earthly government. And possibly as they had shown earlier (Matthew 20:20ff, Mark 10:35ff), they still hoped for important posts for themselves. Jesus does not answer them with a date, but challenges them to think beyond their local concerns. They are to be part of a ministry that will extend to the whole word. They are not to expect royal honours for him or anyone, but be witnesses to all that Jesus did in his plan for a ‘Kingdom’ of repentance, love and healing. This may even mean for some of his followers a real share of his suffering and martyrdom.
‘Two men in white’: at the tomb after the Resurrection ‘two men in dazzling garments’ are seen by the women to tell them of Jesus’ rising. These figures, though described as humans, are understood as angelic appearances. In both instances, they bring a message from God to explain what has happened. Here the promise is that Jesus who is now no longer physically present in his glorified body, will come back at an unnamed future time. This ‘second coming’ is something that we continue to profess in our Christian creeds.
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 when he ascends to the Father. We have the promise of joining 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 for 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 if 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 who give this direction. The women are sent to tell the disciples to go to Galilee where Jesus would be there to meet them.
Mountains are rarely given a specific name in this gospel, but are always places significant events and to some extent symbolic. This began with ‘the mountain’ in Chapter 5-6 as the site of his first preaching, then a mountain becomes a place of prayer (14:23). Also the ‘Transfiguration’ (17:1-15), and Jesus’ predictions about the end of the world on spoken on Mount of Olives which was symbolic for as God’s return for judgement (24:3). So it is not surprising his final revelation and farewell would also be on ‘a mountain’. 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….’ For this Gospel, the ‘God with us’ is a key theme from beginning the birth of Jesus to these last words.
There are nine days between the Ascension and Pentecost. Luke says the disciples returned to Jerusalem and spent the time in prayer. The nine days became for Catholics a traditional time for special petitions, a ‘novena’ from the Latin word for nine. A simple prayer we can use as a novena, knowing the pressing emergencies of our time and recognising our need for continual renewal is:
Come, Holy Spirit, and fill our hearts with the fire of your love.
Compiled by Joan Griffith