The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
Reflection & Dialogue: The Ascension of Christ. God is with us in strength. Dialogue on how to express ourselves about God and the divine
The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
First Reading (Acts 1:1-11). He was lifted up while they looked on.
This work, the Acts of the Apostles, traditionally ascribed to Luke, is dedicated to a certain Theophilus, otherwise 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 then 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 of the parting words of Christ will be made clearer by the narrative of the book of Acts and the history of the Christian Church.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 45). God goes up with shouts of joy; the Lord goes up with trumpet blasts.
Second Reading (Ephesians 1:17-23).
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, by a well-known and highly respected scholar, is that Christ is here portrayed as embodying or epitomizing the rationale and pattern of divine creation. A further reading of this 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 manifest 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 of Paul 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.
Gospel (Matthew 28:16-20).All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
In the Sunday liturgy, this is the year of Matthew’s Gospel. Unlike the Gospel of Luke and the long ending of Mark, Matthew has no account of the ascension of Jesus. And yet in this present reading from Matthew’s Gospel it is the risen Christ, already through his ascension at the right hand of the Father, who speaks. All power in heaven and on earth has been given to him, exactly as we read in the passage of the epistle to the Ephesians read today, which speaks of the strength of God’s power at work in Christ when he used it to raise him from the dead and to make him sit at his own right hand, in heaven, far above anything that can be mentioned, not only in this age, but also in the age to come. He has put all things under his feet and made him ruler over everything. While on earth, Jesus’ mission was limited to Israel. When he sent out the Twelve Apostles to preach the good news he gave them instructions to go nowhere among the Gentiles, or enter any town of the Samaritans, but to go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:5-6). Jesus repeats the same sentiments to a Canaanite woman who sought his help: he had been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 15:24). That age of the limited mission had now passed with the death and the resurrection of Jesus. His power and mission from the Father now were for all humanity, until the end of time. Returning to today’s reading in it biblical context, on Easter Sunday morning at the tomb Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were told by an angel of the Lord that Jesus had arisen, and that they were to inform his disciples of this, telling them to go to Galilee where they would see him. The risen Jesus later appeared to them, with the same message for the disciples, his brothers. Today’s reading tells of that encounter with Jesus. It took place on the mountain to which Jesus has directed them, without any evidence as to its exact location of the mountain. Matthew has earlier (Matthew 1:23) informed us that Jesus, Mary’s son, would be named Emmanuel, which means “God is with us”. The risen and exalted Jesus’ parting words to his Apostles, as he sends them to preach to all nations, is that he will be forever Emmanuel, with his missionaries and followers until the end of time.
Reflection & Dialogue:The Ascension of Christ. God is with us in strength. Dialogue on how to express ourselves about God and the divine.
Reflection on this feast of Christ’s ascension into heaven, to the right hand of the Father, presents an opportunity to satisfy our minds and our hearts on questions we may have with regard to the meaning of this ascension historically considered, and its significance for the Christian mystery of salvation. The ascension of Christ in the New Testament texts can be considered in two ways: as, so to speak, “historical” and theological. In the historical sense it is presented as an event visible to human sight. This is how it is presented in the first reading today and in the Gospel of Luke – both from St Luke. While the Gospel text would give the impression that the ascension occurred on Easter Sunday itself, the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles says it occurred after forty days. The text of Acts is really describing the last visible encounter of Jesus with his disciples after his resurrection. Various Gospel texts speak of Jesus appearing to his followers after his resurrection and St Paul (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) lists six such appearances, without specifying any time period. Luke in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives this as forty days. So much for the ascension “historically” considered.
In all the other New Testament texts the ascension of Christ is considered theologically. The ascension is another aspect of Christ’s resurrection, of his glorification, as partly expressed in today’s second reading: Christ entered heaven itself so that he could appear in the actual presence of God on our behalf. He ascended on high to plead on our behalf as a compassionate high priest. Seated at God’s right hand he gives gifts to his church, all the charisms that are required for its mission on earth. Through his ascension and glorification he is also directing the minds of his followers towards their true home which is heaven, and calling on them to avoid sinful ways.
Language such as “ascension”, implying a “God up there” can be off-putting for many today, and some seek ways of avoiding it. But it is well to recall that such expressions are offset by the Christian belief in God as a spiritual not material, Being. But given the weakness of human language in speaking of the mystery, of the infinite, we can hardly avoid such terms, while recognizing their limitations. Monotheism, whether Jewish or Christian, was from the beginning and will always remain the worship of an unseen God, but nonetheless of a person, a personal God who has revealed his will, his love and his plan for salvation to humanity. We as mortals must conceive and speak of the mystery of this divine Being in frail human speech. This is at variance with certain modern views, which reject the idea of a “God up there”, and invoke newer theological concepts such as God as “ground of our being”, or call for a secular theology, with situational ethics. While earlier “mythical” language in the expression of belief is rightly objected to or rejected, and while newer approaches to the expression of our Christian faith are always welcome, the central truths can never be forgotten or set aside.
A final matter for reflection is that the ascension of Christ, which we celebrate, and all that it signifies can only be grasped through prayer for Christian enlightenment.