HE IS BESIDE EVERY PERSON, FOREVER
With the entry of Jesus into the glory of the Father, has anything changed on earth? Externally, nothing. People’s life continued to be the same as before: sowing and reaping, trading, building houses, traveling, weeping and celebrating, all as before. Even the apostles received no discount on the dramas and anguish experienced by other people. However, something incredibly new happened: a new light was cast on people's existence.
On a foggy day, suddenly, the sun appears. The mountains, the sea, the fields, the trees in the forest, the scents of flowers, the song of birds remain the same, but the way of seeing and perceiving them is different. This also happens to those enlightened by faith in Jesus who ascended to heaven: they see the world with renewed eyes. Everything acquires a meaning; nothing saddens, nothing frightens anymore.
Beyond the misfortunes, the fatalities, the miseries, the errors of man, one can always glimpse the Lord who builds his kingdom. An example of this completely new perspective could be the way of considering the years of life. We all know, and perhaps we smile, of eighty-year-olds who envy those who are less old than they are, who are ashamed of their age... in short, they look to the past, not to the future. The certainty of the ascension reverses this perspective. As the years go by, the Christian is satisfied because he sees the day of the definitive encounter with Christ approaching; he is happy to be alive, does not envy the younger ones, and looks at them with tenderness.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “The sufferings of this present time are not worth compared to the future glory that will be revealed in us.”
First Reading: Acts 1:1-11
In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 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. 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; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
When they had gathered together they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. 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.” When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. 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.” —The Word of the Lord.
On the Mount of Olives, the crusaders built a small octagonal sanctuary. The Muslims converted it into a mosque in the year 1200. I explained to pilgrims with whom I was traveling that this little structure today has a roof, but it was initially uncovered to commemorate the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. A light-hearted person of the group commented: ‘It had no roof because otherwise, as Jesus ascended, he would have hit his head.’ Another pilgrim objected to this irreverent joke, but others considered it an opportunity to make an in-depth study of the meaning of this text of Acts.
At first glance, the story of the Ascension flows smoothly but, when all the details are considered, one begins to feel a certain unease. After all, it seems rather unlikely that Jesus left us like an astronaut who detaches himself from the ground, rises to the sky, and disappears beyond the clouds. There are difficulties we meet in trying to explain some aspects of the different accounts of the Ascension.
At the end of his Gospel, Luke—the author of Acts—says that the Risen Lord led his disciples to Bethany: “And as he blessed them, he withdrew and was taken to heaven. They worshiped him and then returned to Jerusalem full of joy” (Lk 24:50-53). Forget the odd remark about them being ‘full of joy’ (for who among us is happy when a friend departs?) and apparent disagreements on the location (Bethany is a little off the beaten track concerning the Mount of Olives). But perhaps what surprises us most is discrepancies about the date: according to Luke 24, the Ascension takes place on the same day as Easter, while in the Acts it was forty days later (Acts 1:3). Surprisingly, the same author gives two conflicting accounts of the same event.
If we take the second version (the one of the forty days) as accurate, the question immediately arises: What did Jesus do during those forty days? On Calvary, had he not promised the thief: Today you will be with me in paradise? Why didn’t he go there at once?
These difficulties are enough to warn us: perhaps Luke’s intention was not to inform us about where, how, and when Jesus went up to heaven. Perhaps (indeed, surely) his concern is elsewhere: he wants to respond to problems and resolve doubts that have arisen in his community. He wants to enlighten the Christians of his time on the ineffable mystery of Easter. For this reason, as an artist of the pen, he composes a page of theology using a literary genre and images familiar to his contemporaries. This requires that we understand the language he is using.
Even during the lifetime of Jesus, the anticipation of the arrival of the Kingdom of God was very vivid. Apocalyptic writers announced it as imminent. They expected a flood of purifying fire from heaven, the resurrection of the righteous, and the beginning of a new world. Even in the minds of some disciples, an atmosphere of excitement was evident, and it was fueled by some expressions of Jesus that were easily misunderstood: “You will not have passed through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Mt 10:23).
However, with the death of the Master, all hopes were dashed: the two disciples on the road to Emmaus said it all: “We had hoped that he would redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21). But the resurrection reawakens expectations: the conviction of an imminent return of Christ spreads among the disciples. Some fanatics based themselves on alleged revelations and began even to announce the date. The invocation “Maranatha” (Rev 22:20) – “Come, Lord Jesus” – is repeated in all the communities.
However, years pass, and the Lord does not come. Many begin to doubt: “What has become of his promised coming? Since our fathers in faith died, everything goes on as it was from the beginning of the world”(2 Pet 3:4).
Luke writes in this situation of crisis of faltering faith. He realizes that a misunderstanding is the source of the bitter disappointment of Christians: the resurrection of Jesus marked just the beginning of the Kingdom of God; it was not the end of the story. The construction of the new world has just begun. It would require a long time and a lot of effort on the part of the disciples. How was Luke to correct the false expectations? He introduces a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles on the first page of the book of Acts.
Let us consider the question that they propose: When will the Kingdom of God come? (v. 6). It is the same question that all Christians wanted to direct to the Master at the end of the first century. And the response of the Risen One is directed more to the members of Luke’s community than to the Twelve: “It is not for you to know the time and the steps the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the earth” (v. 7-8).
The scene of the Ascension follows this dialogue (vv. 9-11). Jesus and the disciples were seated at table(Acts 1:4) in the house. Why didn’t they say goodbye to each other there at the supper? Why did they need to go to the Mount of Olives? And there are further details: the cloud, the eyes turned skyward, the two men in white robes. Are these facts in the story or literary devices?
In the Old Testament, there is a remarkably similar story. It is the ‘snatching’ of Elijah (2 Kgs 2:9-15). One day, this great prophet finds himself near the Jordan River with his disciple Elisha. He, learning that his teacher will leave him, dares to ask him two-thirds of his spirit as an inheritance. Elijah promises him, but only on one condition: if you see me when I am taken from you. Suddenly, while Elisha looks heavenwards, a chariot with a mare of fire snatched up Elijah in a whirlwind. From that moment, Elisha received the spirit of the master and was able to continue his mission. The book of Kings tells of the works of Elisha, and they follow the tradition of Elijah.
It is easy to identify those prophetic elements in common with the narrative in Acts. It leads directly to this conclusion: Luke made use of the grand and solemn scenario of Elijah’s snatching to convey a reality that could not be verified with the senses nor adequately described with words, in a word, the Passover of Jesus, his resurrection, and his entry into the glory of the Father.
In the Old Testament, the cloud indicates the presence of God in a certain place (Ex 13:22). Luke uses it to affirm that Jesus, the defeated One, the stone the builders rejected, the One whom the enemies would have wished to remain forever a prisoner of death, was instead welcomed by God and proclaimed as ‘Lord.’ The two men dressed in white are the same that appear at the tomb on Easter Day (Lk 24:4). The white color represents, according to the biblical symbolism, the world of God. The words put into the two men's mouths are an explanation given by God to the events of Easter: Jesus, the faithful servant, put to death by men, is glorified. Their words are valid (being two, they are credible witnesses).
Finally: the gaze turned skyward. Like Elisha, the apostles and the Christians of Luke’s time also contemplate the Master who distances himself. Their gaze indicates the hope of his immediate return, the desire that, after a short interval, he will resume the interrupted work. But the voice from the sky clarifies: he will not bring it to completion, but you will. You will do it; you will be qualified to do so because you have spent with him forty days (in the language of Judaism, it was the time needed for the preparation of the disciple), and you have received the Spirit. For the apostles, as for Elisha, the image of the ‘rapture of the master’ means the passage of handover.
Within Luke’s lifetime, there were Christians who ‘looked to the sky,’ that is, those who regarded religion as an escape rather than an incentive to undertake measures to improve people's lives. God says to them: Stop looking at the sky; you need to prove the authenticity of your faith on earth. Jesus will come back, yes, but that hope should not be a reason for alienating yourselves from the problems of this world. “Happy are those servants whom the master finds wide-awake when he comes” (Lk 12:37).
Did Jesus then ascend into heaven? Of course, he did. To say that he ascended to heaven is equivalent to saying: he is risen, glorified, and has entered into the glory of God. His body, it is true, was placed in the tomb, but God did not need the atoms of his body to give him his ‘resurrected body’ that Paul calls his ‘spiritual body’ (1 Cor 15:35-50).
Forty days after Easter, there was no displacement in space and no ‘rapture’ from the Mount of Olives toward heaven. The Ascension took place in the instant of death, even though the disciples began to understand and believe only from the ‘third day.’
The story of Luke is a page of theology, not the report of a columnist. On this page, he wants to tell us that Jesus was the first to go through the ‘veil of the temple’ that separated the world of people from that of God. He showed how everything that happens on earth: successes, mishaps, injustice, suffering, and even the more absurd facts, such as a shameful death, are not beyond God’s plan.
The Ascension of Jesus is all that. So, we should not be surprised that it was greeted with great joy by the apostles (Lk 24:52).
Second Reading: Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:19-23
Brothers and sisters: May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him. 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, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe, in accord with the exercise of his great might, which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens, 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. And he put all things beneath Christ’s feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way. —The Word of the Lord.
Today, we continue to speak of priests to refer to presbyters and the ministers of the Eucharist and Reconciliation. Still, the Second Vatican Council carefully avoided this and reserved the term priest—as does the entire New Testament—to Christ and the people of God united with Christ in offering spiritual sacrifices pleasing to the Father.
The passage from the Letter to the Hebrews that is offered to us today begins by indicating two reasons why Jesus is the only true priest. The first is that the ancient priests offered holocausts in a material temple, made of stones, while Jesus carries out his ministry in heaven, in a sanctuary not built by human hands (Heb 9:24).
Next, the priesthood of the Old Covenant had as its goal the purification of the people from their sins. To atone for their sins, the high priest would enter - alone and with fear - the most sacred part of the temple, the Holy of Holies, and pour the blood of the sacrificed animals on the stone that was believed to have been placed by God as the foundation of the world. This stone was also said to be the stopper that blocked the waters of the abyss. If in the day of Yom Kippur, the sins of the people had not been expiated, the infernal waters would be poured out again on the world through the accurate and meticulous execution of all the purifying rites.
The high priest repeated these liturgical gestures every year but obtained no remission of sin. People continued to be evil and in need of atonement. Jesus' priesthood is entirely different: He offered a unique and perfect sacrifice and did not shed animal blood, but gave His own blood and, by His act of love, removed sin forever (Heb 9:25-27). He will come again, not to repeat the sacrifices, but to take with him the men whom his unique and perfect sacrifice has redeemed from all guilt (Heb 9:28).
In the second part of the reading (Heb 10:19-23), the author highlights the result of the sacrifice offered by Christ and presents in theological language the ascension to heaven that we celebrate today. He addresses the recipients of his letter by calling them brothers and announces to them: the old worship is over; Christ has inaugurated the new one.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke presented this truth using a spatial image; he invited us to contemplate Jesus ascending to heaven. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews introduces the same event in theological language, referring to the liturgy of the Temple of Jerusalem: Jesus is the true, unique High Priest who, having crossed the veil that separated the world of people from that of God, entered the eternal sanctuary of heaven. He entered and presented to the Father his sacrifice: not the offering of animals that God was never interested in, but his own life given for all, out of love. In this way, he opened wide for everyone the entrance to the Father's house. The final exhortation to the disciple who now has his heart purified by his blood and his body washed by the water of Baptism is to be faithful, not to waver in the profession of this hope (vv. 21-23).
Gospel: Luke 24:46-53
Jesus said to his disciples: “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to these things. And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, raised his hands, and blessed them. As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven. They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God. —The Gospel of the Lord.
We can study and know the material realities; it is enough to apply intelligence and insight. However, the secrets of God elude us; they are inscrutable, he alone can reveal them. If we approach Jesus and retrace the steps of his life guided only by human wisdom, we find ourselves in front of a dense mystery; we are groping in the dark. From beginning to end, what happens to him remains an enigma. Mary, his mother, is surprised and amazed when God's plan begins in her Son (Lk 2:33,50). In faith, she too must ‘put together,’ like pieces of a puzzle, the various events (Lk 2:19) to discover the Lord's mystery. How can we grasp its meaning?
The Risen Lord answers this question in the first verses of today's Gospel (vv. 46-47). He—Luke reports—opened the disciples' minds to the understanding of the Scriptures: "Thus it is written...." Only from the word of God announced by the prophets can come the light that illuminates the events of Easter. In the Bible, says Jesus, it was already foretold that the Messiah would suffer, die, and rise again.
It is difficult to find such explicit statements in the Old Testament. However, there is no doubt that what changed the minds of the disciples and made them understand that God's Messiah was very different from what they expected were the texts of the prophet Isaiah that speak of the Servant of the Lord “despised and rejected, a man of sorrow and familiar with grief … he will live long and see his descendants ... For the anguish he suffered, he will see the light" (Is 53:3,10-11).
Another event—says the Risen One—is announced in the Scriptures: "In his name shall conversion and forgiveness of sins be preached to all nations" (v. 47). Here the reference to the biblical text is clear. It alludes to the mission of the Servant of the Lord: "I have set you as a light for the nations, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth" (Is 49:6). According to the prophet, it is the task of the Messiah to bring salvation to all nations. How would this prophecy be fulfilled if Jesus limited his activity to his people if he offered salvation only to the Israelites (Mt 15:24)?
The second part of today's Gospel (vv. 48-49) answers this question: Jesus will become the ‘light of the Gentiles’ through the witness of his disciples. This is a task too far beyond human capacity. Goodwill and fine qualities are not enough; it is necessary to count on his strength. This is the reason for the promise: "Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high" (v. 49). It is the announcement of the sending of the Spirit, the One who will become the protagonist of the Church's time. In the Acts of the Apostles, his presence is often recalled in the salient moments and his assistance in the decisive choices made by the disciples.
Luke's Gospel concludes with the account of the Ascension (vv. 50-53). Before entering the Father's glory, Jesus blesses the disciples (v. 51). When the liturgical celebrations in the temple were over, the priest came out of the holy place and pronounced a solemn blessing on the faithful gathered for prayer (Sir 50:20). After the blessing, they returned to their occupations, confident that the Lord would bring to a successful conclusion all their efforts and all their labors. Jesus' blessing accompanies the community of his disciples and is the promise and guarantee of the complete success of the work they are about to begin.
The final call could only be one of joy: the disciples "returned to Jerusalem with great joy" (v. 52). Luke is the evangelist of joy. Already on the first page of his Gospel, we encounter the angel of the Lord who says to Zechariah: "You will have joy and exultation, and many will rejoice at his birth" (Lk 1:14). Shortly after that, in the account of Jesus' birth, the angel appears again and says to the shepherds, "Do not be afraid; behold, I announce to you great joy, which will be for all the people" (Lk 2:10).
The first reason the disciples rejoice, even though the Master is no longer visibly with them, is that they have understood that he has not remained, as his enemies thought, a prisoner of death.
They have experienced his resurrection; they are sure that he was the first to cross the ‘veil of the temple’ which separated the world of people from that of God. In this way, he showed that everything that happens on earth: successes and misfortunes, injustice, suffering, and even the most absurd events, such as those that happened to him, do not escape God's plan. If this is the destiny of every person, death is no longer frightening; Jesus has transformed it into birth to life with God. This is the first reason to face even the most dramatic and complicated situations with hope.
The light of the Scriptures made them understand that Jesus did not go to another place; he did not leave but remained with them. His way of being present is no longer the same, but it is no less real. Before Easter, he was conditioned by all the limitations to which we are subject. Now he is no longer, and he can be with everyone, forever. With the Ascension, his presence has not diminished; it has multiplied! This is the second reason for the joy of the disciples and ours.