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May 13 2018 (B)  The Ascension of the Lord (B)

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection and Dialogue with Questions of the Day: Christ at God’s Right hand Source and Guide of Christian Living

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading

He was lofted up while they looked on. This work, the Acts of the Apostles, traditionally ascribed to Luke, is dedicated to a certain Theophilus, unknown apart from the reference to him in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:3), a work also dedicated to him. In today’s reading Luke first gives a summary of Jesus’ work from the beginning to his ascension, as he had done in his Gospel. Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24:1-49,50-51) might give the impression that the ascension of Christ into heaven took place on Easter Sunday, the day of the resurrection, itself. Here, however, Luke says that Jesus appeared to his apostles for forty days after his resurrection. Later in this work Luke has Paul tell a congregation that after his resurrection Jesus appeared “for many days” to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem (Acts 13:31). Paul, citing a very early tradition (1 Cor 15:3-8), speaks of the risen Lord having appeared to Cephas (Peter), the Twelve, more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, to James and the to all the apostles, without mention of any time span. Then, Paul continues, the risen Lord appeared to Paul himself – some three years at least after the resurrection. Over these forty days, our text reminds us, Jesus spoke to his apostles about the kingdom of God, central to his preaching, his ministry and his miracles during his earthly life. The apostles, however, are still thinking within the framework of their Jewish tradition and the kingdom of David and Israel, a hope central to the Jewish messianic expectations of their day. Jesus replies that any such fulfilment, or any fulfilment, is a matter for his Father. What this will be, will be revealed through the inspiration and guidance of the promised Holy Spirit, which will take the apostles and Christ’s first followers far beyond Israel – to the very ends of the earth. The implications the parting words of Christ of which will be made clearer by the narrative of the book of Acts and the history of the Christian Church.

Responsorial Psalm Psalm 46[47]). The Lord goes up with shouts of joy.

Second Reading (Ephesians 1:17-23). He made him sit at his right hand in heaven’ The first reading today, from the Acts of the Apostles, gives what one may call the “historical” ascension, an ascension represented as an established historical fact observed by experience of the senses. This representation is found only in this reading of Acts 1:9-10 and in Luke 24:50-51. Other New Testament texts mention the ascension as purely theological fact (without any reference to its being observed by the senses), such as Christ ascending far above the heavens that he might fulfil all things; or as the enthronement of Christ at the right hand of the Father (at his resurrection) without explicit mention of the ascension as in today’s text (Ephesians 1:20) and in many other New Testament texts, which state that the Father raised Christ from the dead to make him sit at his right hand, putting all things under his feet, making him ruler of everything, making Christ the head of the Church which is his body. The Church, Christ’s body, is the fullness of Christ, the fullness which fills the whole universe. It is a rich doctrine, the implications of which biblical scholars attempt to spell out. One explanation (that of J.D.G. Dunn) is that Christ is here portrayed as embodying or epitomizing the rationale and pattern of divine creation. A further understanding of this text is that the Church, the universal church, through its faith in Christ and in the God who worked through Christ, has the key to understanding reality and is enabled to rise above all that threatened human and social life; the church, Christ’s body, is (or should be!) the place where God’s presence in, and purpose for, creation comes to its clearest expression. After which the same writer comments: “Would that it were so!” The central point in this reading is the infinite power of God made manifestt in the resurrection of Christ and in his ascension and enthronement at the right hand of God. All this divine power, then and still at work, was and is for believers in Christ. This great mystery of God working through Christ, and the church, Christ’s body, is a deep mystery, one that can be properly understood only through divine grace. Hence the prayer at the beginning of the reading to “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory” to give believers true insight into this great mystery, into the richness of this their inheritance, truths which are a central part of the feast of the Ascension we are celebrating.

Alternative Second Reading  (Ephesians 4:1-13). Fully mature with the fullness of Christ. This reading is chosen for today’s liturgy by reason of its reference to the ascension of Christ and of the gifts he conferred on the Church after his ascension. The reading is all about the Church, the call to unity within it, and to the growth in perfection to become like the perfect man, Christ himself. But, of course, the Church is no abstraction. It is, and becomes, what it is called to be by its members. Individual members are weak and different from one another. They need to be reminded of the virtues required to make the Christian vision a reality. The text begins with an exhortation to live that vision, which requires of the individuals charity, selflessness, gentleness and patience. There is great stress on unity, oneness, and peace in this unity that binds together. All within Christianity bespeaks unity: one Body (of Christ, the Church), one (Holy) Spirit, one hope, one Lord (Jesus), one baptism, one God, who binds all together (Father of all, over all, through all, and within all).

In the next part of the text the author speaks of the gifts given by Christ to enrich his Church and have it reach its goal. He begins by saying that each member has received their own share of grace, given as Christ allotted it. Here he speaks of the individual members, without whom the mystery of salvation would not function. The graces given soon afterwards will be of administration only, to return to the individuals later. All he gifts he mentions are connected with Christ’s ascension. This section is introduced by what might appear to be a citation of Psalm 68(67):18 which addresses someone in the second person singular as ascending on high and receiving gifts from mortals.  In the text cited the person addressed is identified as Christ, presented as giving gifts to mortals. This depends on an old Jewish interpretation of the text which identified the person going up (the mount) as Moses ascending Sinai and bringing the gift of the Law to his people. The text in this letter is interpreted of Christ who had descended (from heaven) to earth (“the lower parts of the earth”) at his incarnation, to ascend at his glorification. The gifts listed as given by him to his Church are those connected with the initial preaching, the later understanding of the mystery of the Gospel and its continued explanation, in the order of importance for the author: apostles, prophets (deeper inspired understanding of the gospel), evangelists, pastors and teachers. All these gifts and graces are given for the sole purpose of building up the Church, the body of Christ, to have believers attain unity in their faith and in the knowledge of Christ, the Son of God. The goal of this advancement in knowledge and holiness is for the Church itself to become perfect, after its model Jesus Christ. What is said of ther Church, of course, applies to the individuals: the Church is holy or otherwise through the lives of its individual members.

Gospel (Mark 16:15-20). He was taken up into heaven: there at the right hand of God he took his place. It is generally, if not universally, accepted today that the original text of Mark’s gospel ends with Mark 16:8 and that the ending (16:9-20) is a later, although early and canonical, addition, drawing on related Gospel texts (Matthew, Luke) and even possibly the Acts of the Apostles. The reference to picking up snakes and being unharmed may be more of a reference to what happened to Paul (Acts 28:3-5) than a commission on risks to be taken by believers. The reading from Mark, in this Year B, year of Mark, is chosen for today’s feast because of its inclusion of the ascension of Christ (as in Acts 1:2,9), his being seated at the right hand of God, and active in his Church through his saving power.

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: Christ at God’s Right hand Source and Guide of Christian Living

Dialogue with modern society:  some guiding principles. All meaningful dialogue must begin, and be conducted, in an awareness of one’s basic position. The author of the First Letter of Peter told his readers to be prepared to give an accounting for the hope that is in them to anyone who demands it (1 Peter 3:15). The hope and faith of Christians is fundamentally that the Easter and Ascension message. This central hope and faith is put clearly in Colossians 3:1-4, the second reading for Easter Sunday (all years). This reading stresses that telievers should look at the things that are in heaven, where Christ is sitting at God’s right hand, not on things that are on earth. The message is that the moral life of Christians is to be guided by the demands of belief in the risen Christ. The continuation of the text in Colossians spells this out. “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)”. Later the same exhortation for this new Christian life says: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12), and much more.

Dialogue possibly revealing contrasting, even incompatible, positions. Dialogue with current culture, whether in the New Testament period or in our own day, may clearly show up positions contrasting or even incompatible with the central Christian message. We have a clear example in the life of Paul. At Athens he preached to Jews, and in the market place to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, but  without success. Some said: “What does this babbler (or: rag-picker) want to say”, and his reference to Jesus and the resurrection (in Greek Anastasis) were taken as foreign gods. When addressing the learned of Athens, the Areopagus, he seeks to exploit points of common interest with his audience, but at the mention of the resurrection and the resurrection of Christ he is politely dismissed (Acts 17:16-33). Dispirited, he departs for Corinth, where he is encouraged by the Holy Spirit to continue. In his letter to the Corinthians Paul makes clear that his first preaching to them was not in lofty words or human wisdom, but in plain language:  Jesus Christ and him crucified, so that their faith might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Cor 2:1-5). The “rulers of this world” (that is the elite) did not understand such a Christian message (1 Corinthians 2:8). If stalemate is reached in some present-day dialogue, Christians may reflect on the basic religious standpoint of each side, and as required come to a deeper understanding of what our Christian “hope”, and heritage is.

Knowledge of the mystery of Christ and the Church through prayer and reflection. Whether in dialogue or otherwise, it iswell for us all to bear in mind that the Church is basically a mystery in the full sense of this word, not a “revealed truth that we cannot understand” but the medium of God’s saving work through Christ. It is not a political entity, but the body of Christ, in which God’s omnipotence is at work, purifying her constantly to enable her to be the sacrament of his salvation for the whole world.