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

B. Reflection & Dialogue: The Ascension of Christ. God is with us in strength. Dialogue on how to express ourselves about God and the divine.

A. 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 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 will be made clearer by the narrative of the book of Acts and the history of the Christian Church.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 45[47]). God goes up with shouts of joy; the Lord goes up with trumpet blasts.

Second Reading (Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:19-23).  Christ entered into heaven itself.  To understand the message of this reading it is good to recall that the language and imagery used are part and parcel of this epistle or rather homily. The author is intent on assuring his Jewish readers who are tempted to return to Jewish ritual and faith that Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension into heaven are the reality of which the Jewish sanctuary and its sacrifices were but types. On the great Day of Atonement the Jewish High Priest entered through a veil into the Holy of Holies in the Temple and sprinkled animal blood for atonement and the forgiveness of sin. This he did once a year, but repeated each year. Against this background today’s reading first speaks of the Ascension of Christ, in which he enters not the man-made sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple but the true sanctuary of heaven. And he enters as high priest to make intercession for humanity. His sacrifice was once for all on Calvary, not needing yearly repetition.

            The second part of the reading is an exhortation to followers of Christ to live Christ’s ascension. They, too, have entered the true sanctuary of heaven with Christ. They are exhorted to live a true Christian life. They have been washed with pure water in baptism, not an external washing but an internal cleansing of the soul. They should live a life sincere in heart and filled with faith. God who has saved them in Christ and called them to the faith is faithful; with them to the end.

Alternative 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 (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.

Gospel (Luke 24:46-53). As he blessed them he was carried up to heaven. This is the ending of Luke’s Gospel. Christ reminds his disciples that he is the fulfilment of the prophecies of Scripture, prophecies of his death and resurrection and of the saving message of the Gospel to be preached to all nations. The passage ends with a brief account of his ascent into haven, and the joy of the disciples as they prepared for the next step in salvation history.

B. 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, as in today’s Alternative Second Reading, 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 all 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.

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