Scripture notes – The Ascension of the Lord – 9th May 2024

‘Christ is no longer present as an individual… He is the light that floods the entire universe.’ (Rowan Williams, Candles in the Dark)

The readings are available online here.

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 then joyfully return to Jerusalem and he says they were continually praying in the temple where Luke has set the beginning of his Gospel. We don’t know when he decided to write the ‘sequel’, opening with an account of the early days following the Resurrection but he clearly links the two works together as part of an ongoing account. 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. Literal events 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.

Luke dedicates his second volume, as he did his Gospel, to ‘Theophilus’, perhaps 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 Dominion of God, they are still hoping for an earthly Davidic king for the Jewish people who have been living so long while under Roman rule. 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 Dominion 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 two millenniums 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 (13:26). The ‘two men’ recall the two men in the empty tomb who told the women of the Resurrection and are also heavenly messengers. 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.

Psalm 46/47:2-3, 6-9
This hymn celebrates God as king, symbolising God’s power 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.

Ephesians 1:17-23
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.

Mark 16:15-20
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’, and is ‘most likely’ a Second Century collection of appearance stories based primarily on Luke. Because the Gospel clearly written by Mark 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. The gospel may have been 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.

Joan Griffith

Suggestions for prayer or reflection:

Many of us do not put store by ‘signs and wonders’ of the truth of the Gospel, nor do we expect to drive out demons, speak in tongues, pick up snakes or drink poison without coming to harm.

What do we expect to ‘see’ from God’s work in our lives. And what do we expect to do through the power of Jesus ascended?

Gwen Griffith-Dickson