In the dioceses of Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, California and Hawaii the Ascension of the Lord is transferred from its normal Thursday to the following Sunday, which is today. This has been done for the last few years in the western provinces of the North American church because the Ascension is too important to ignore and the celebration on Thursday was not getting the attention that it was due. The readings call us to reflect on the meaning of the Ascension and on our relationship with the Risen and Ascended Lord.
First Reading: Acts 1: 1-11
1 In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught 2 until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While meeting with them, he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for “the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; 5 for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6 When they had gathered together they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. 10 While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
NOTES on First Reading:
* 1:1-2 These verses act as an introduction to Acts and connect Acts with the Gospel of Luke which is generally taken to have been written by the same writer.
* 1:3-5 These verses show that the apostles were instructed by the risen Jesus. This sense of continuity between the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of the disciples (Church) was very important to the early Church.
* 1:3 Luke considered the interval in which the appearances and instructions of the risen Jesus occurred to be especially sacred and in Acts he expressed it in terms of the sacred number forty (see Deut 8:2). In the scriptures forty is often used to indicate a special time in which God accomplishes a special task in and among His people. It implies a time that is sufficiently long to accomplish God’s purpose. In Luke’s gospel, however, Luke connects the ascension of Jesus with the resurrection by describing the ascension on Easter Sunday evening (Luke 24:50-53). What might better be understood as one event (resurrection, glorification, ascension, sending of the Spirit–the paschal mystery) has been historicized by Luke when he writes of a visible ascension of Jesus after forty days and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost.
For Luke, the ascension marks the end of the appearances of Jesus except for the extraordinary appearance to Paul. With regard to Luke’s understanding of salvation history, the ascension also marks the end of the time of Jesus’ direct action in the world (Luke 24:50-53) and signals the beginning of the time of Jesus’ action through the Church as the normal means of carrying out His Mission.
* 1:4 The promise of the Father is, of course, the gift of the Holy Spirit which the next verse makes clear. This gift of the Spirit was first promised in Jesus’ final instructions to his chosen witnesses in Luke’s gospel (Luke 24:49) and it formed part of the continuing instructions of the risen Jesus on the kingdom of God, which Luke speaks of in Acts 1:3.
* 1:6-11 Here Luke assures us that the parousia (second coming in glory) of Jesus will occur just as certainly as His ascension occurred.
* 1:6 The question asked by the disciples implies that they are still attempting to fit Jesus and His ministry into their expectations of a political leader who would restore self-rule to Israel. Since He had not done so, they ask if it is to take place now, in the time of the Church.
* 1:7 This verse echoes the previous tradition that the precise time of the parousia is not revealed to human beings. See Mark 13:32; 1 Thes 5:1-3.
* 1:8 As Jerusalem was the city of destiny in the Gospel of Luke, here at the beginning of Acts, Jerusalem also has a central importance. It is the starting point for the mission of the disciples to “the ends of the earth,” the place where the apostles were gathered and the doctrinal focal point in the early days of the community (Acts 15:2,6). For Luke, “the ends of the earth” means Rome.
* 1:9-14 Scholars still argue over whether Luke derived the story of the ascension from previous tradition and if so how much of it came from that tradition. Luke includes direct echoes of Elijah’s ascension as told in 2 Kings 2:9-13 and Sirach 48:9,12.
The witness theme is important here. Luke refers to witness’s vision five times in verses 9-11. This is an argument for the visibility and historicity of Jesus’ ascension. However, the inclusion of interpreting angels signals that this is not simply an event fully within history and therefore it is not completely comprehensible on strictly human terms.
There is a strong similarity with the last of Daniel’s night visions from Daniel 7:13-14. In fact, Daniel’s description reads almost as if it were a description of Jesus’ arrival in heaven after leaving earth in the ascension.
Second Reading: Ephesians 1: 17-23
17 That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him. 18 May the eyes of (your) hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, 19 and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe, in accord with the exercise of his great might, 20 which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens, 21 far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.
NOTES on Second Reading:
* 1:17 In Greco-Roman letters, the greeting was customarily followed by a prayer. Paul’s letters usually include this element (except Gal and 1-2 Tim) but express it in Christian thanksgiving formulas and most often they also state the principal theme of the letter. In Ephesians the prayer is preceded by a lengthier blessing than usual.
* 1:20-23 God revealed His might in the resurrection and ascension of Christ and in His exaltation over all angelic forces. Paul uses early Christian creedal statements which formulated the “Christ-event” in terms of Psalm 110:1 and 8:7 in order to impress upon the readers the glorious position to which they have been called in Christ.
* 1:23 Only in Ephesians and Colossians is Christ called the head of the body, in contrast to the view in 1 Cor 12 and Romans 12:4-8 where Christ is equated with the entire body or community. In this verse some take the one who fills as God, others as Christ (see Eph 4:10). If in Christ “dwells the fullness of the deity bodily” (Col 2:9), then, as God “fills” Christ, Christ in turn fills the church and the believer (Eph 3:19; 5:18). But the difficult phrases here may also allow the church to be viewed as the “complement” of Christ who is “being filled” as God’s plan for the universe is carried out through the church (See Eph 3:9-10).
Gospel Reading: Matthew 28: 16-20
16 The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. 18 Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
NOTES on Gospel Reading:
* 28:16-20 This climactic scene, often called a “proleptic parousia,” gives a foretaste of the final glorious coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 26:64). At that time his triumph will be manifest to all, whereas, now it is revealed only to the disciples, who, as part of the revelation, are commissioned to announce it to all nations and bring them to belief in Jesus and obedience to his commandments.
Since the message to the disciples was simply that they were to go to Galilee (Matthew 28:10), some think that the mountain comes from a tradition of the message known to Matthew and alluded to here. As in Mat 17:1, the significance of the mountain is likely to be theological rather than geographical, possibly recalling the revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:12-18) and to Elijah at the same place (1 Kings 19:8-18; Horeb is the same as Sinai).
* 28:17 The Greek can be translated, as either, “but they doubted,” or “but some doubted.” The verb only occurs in one other place in the New Testament: Matthew 14:31 where it is associated with Peter’s being of “little faith.”
* 28:18 The Greek text here calls to mind that found in the LXX translation of Daniel 7:13-14 where one “like a son of man” is given power and an everlasting kingdom by God. The risen Jesus here claims universal power, that is power in heaven and on earth. He claims for Himself the power, dignity and dominion given to the mysterious figure of Daniel 7:13-14.
* 28:19 Because universal power belongs to the risen Jesus (Matthew 28:18), He gives the eleven a mission that is universal. They are to make disciples of all nations. While scholars have long argued whether or not this term refers only to Gentiles, it is probable that it was meant to include the Jews as well. Baptism was seen by the early church as the means of entrance into the community of the Risen One, the Church. This verse contains what may be the clearest expression in the New Testament of Trinitarian belief. It was probably the baptismal formula of Matthew’s church, but its primary function here is to designate the effect of baptism which is the union of the one baptized with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
* 28:20 The commands mentioned here include all the moral teaching found in this gospel, but especially that of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The commandments of Jesus replace the Mosaic law as the standard of Christian conduct, even though some of the Mosaic commandments have been repeated and continued by the authority of Jesus. The promise of Jesus’ real presence echoes the name Emmanuel given to him in the infancy narrative (Mat 1:23) even though His presence may not be generally visible. Matthew is the only Gospel that uses the term, “end of the age.” See the Matthew 13:39 and Matthew 24:3. Although the exact meaning is never precisely given, it seems to indicate a time marked by the return of Jesus.