The Ascension of the Lord (Year A)

Commentary on Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20

Why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky?

The Ascension is not to be understood literally as if Jesus floated up into space on his way to “heaven”. Where is “heaven”? It is above Jerusalem? Is it in the whole sky encircling the earth? Heaven should be conceived not as a place but as a relationship with God and God is everywhere in the whole universe. Jesus did not have to ‘go’ anywhere to be with his Father.

Paschal mystery
The Ascension is part of what we call the Paschal Mystery. There are four interrelated parts: suffering and death; resurrection; ascension; and the sending of the Spirit. They are closely interlocked as one reality. If the resurrection says that the crucified Jesus is alive, the Ascension says that the living Jesus has entered into glory, sharing on an equal level the glory of his Father. This is expressed in many different ways in different writings of our Christian (New) Testament. We have three of these viewpoints or understandings in each of today’s readings.

On God’s right hand
In the Letter to the Ephesians (Second Reading) the fact is stated with great solemnity but without saying how it took place. The author 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 right hand, in heaven, far above every Sovereignty, Authority, Power, or Domination, or any other name that can be named, not only in this age, but also in the age to come.

This is basically the meaning of the Ascension, namely, that Jesus, our triumphant Messiah-King, reigns in glory over all creation. There is no mention of “where” he is or how he got there.

Familiar account
If we go to the Acts of the Apostles (First Reading), we come to a description which, for many Christians, is the definitive account of the Ascension. Jesus rose on Easter Sunday and then spent 40 days instructing his disciples about the Reign or Kingship of God. During this time they wondered when Jesus was going to restore the Kingdom of Israel. They were still in a state of great misunderstanding about the nature of Jesus’ mission – and their own.

As they will eventually come to understand, it is they themselves who will become the agents, not of restoring the Kingdom of Israel but, much more importantly, helping to establish the Kingship of God all over the world.

Then, one day on the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem, as they looked on, he “was lifted up” and “a cloud took him from their sight”. The “lifting up” is to be understood more in a spiritual sense, as it is in John’s Gospel where he speaks a number of times about Jesus being “lifted up”:

I, being lifted up, will draw all people to myself.

It refers in particular to the Risen Jesus being raised to the glory of God the Father. This is further emphasised by the cloud that took him from their sight. The same cloud that, in the Hebrew Testament, shrouded Mount Sinai as the sign of God’s presence or the cloud that enveloped Jesus at his Transfiguration.

Lower your eyes
And that is why the disciples need to be told not to stay standing there gawking up at the sky. That is not where the Risen and Ascended Jesus is to be found. If they want to meet him again, they have to go back to Jerusalem, where, in a few days’ time, they themselves will be filled with the Spirit of God and of the Risen and Ascended Jesus. They will become the Body of the Risen and Exalted Jesus, his effective presence to “the ends of the earth”. As Jesus had told them just before his Ascension (in the Acts),

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth.

As we saw on previous Sundays, in order to continue being with his disciples, Jesus had to leave them. His “old” presence in one human body, in one small corner of the world, reaching a small number of people, in one tiny period of history now gives way to a new presence that will reach the whole world in every age. From now on wherever there is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness…”, wherever there is truth, love, compassion, justice, freedom, beauty – the Spirit of Jesus is there.

Same message, different location
Today’s Gospel (from Matthew) has a similar message. While the scene in Acts takes place in Jerusalem (for Luke the focal point of all that Jesus means for the world), Matthew has the disciples back on their home ground in Galilee. For, it is in the familiarity of home, not up in the skies, that Jesus is to be found. They are at the mountain “where Jesus arranged to meet them”. This is the mountain where Jesus once revealed himself to three disciples at the Transfiguration (chap 17) and where he touched them after this:

Stand up; do not be afraid.

This is not really an ascension scene. It is understood that the Risen Jesus is already in the glory of the Father. We have here rather an appearance of the Risen Jesus, an appearance that relies on faith.

So, on the one hand they worship and, on the other, they have doubts – an experience all of us can have from time to time. The emphasis here is not on the appearance of Jesus but on what he has to say to his disciples. It is in three parts – past, present and future.

Jesus, source of all authority
First, Jesus tells them that all authority of the Creator God himself, has been given to him. To commit oneself totally to Jesus is to commit oneself to God.

Second, Jesus gives the command to “make disciples” of people everywhere. He is thus passing on much of his own authority to his disciples. Pentecost will be the confirmation of this. They are to do what he did. They will have the power to reconcile the sinful with God and with the community, and to decide who are not yet ready for reconciliation and full participation in the community’s life. The community has standards to keep in order to be a living and credible witness of Jesus and his Gospel. It has a corporate right to maintain those standards. They are to teach, to heal, to break down the divisions that separate people. Baptism in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit will be the symbol of incorporation as members of Christ’s Body, as disciples of Jesus.

Always with us
Third, the Risen and Ascended Jesus is not far away. He is with his followers and will be with them to the end of time. It is a reminder of the promise made at the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, before the birth of Jesus:

Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name will be called Emmanuel [which means, God is with us] (Matt 1:23)

And again later on,

Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matt 18:20)

The gift of the Spirit is not mentioned, but is clearly implied by the promise of the ongoing presence of Jesus.

Today’s feast then is a celebration of Jesus’ glory after his suffering and death – a glory in which we also hope to share. At the same time, we celebrate the ongoing presence of the Risen Jesus among us through the Holy Spirit, a presence which calls on every one of us to be living witnesses to that presence here in our own community and to the ends of the earth.

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