Commentary to the Feast of the Ascension – June 2, 2019
He is Always Beside Every Person
With the coming of Jesus in the glory of the Father has anything on earth changed? Outwardly nothing. The lives of the people continued to be what it was before: to sow, reap, trade, build homes, travel, cry and party, as usual. Even the apostles had not received any reduction on dramas and anxieties experienced by other people. However, something incredibly new happened: a new light was projected on the existence of people.
On a foggy day, the sun suddenly appears. The mountains, the sea, the fields, the trees of the forest, the scent of the flowers, the songs of the birds remain the same, but the way of seeing or perceiving them is different. It also happens to one who is enlightened by faith in Jesus ascended into heaven: he sees the world with new eyes. Everything makes sense, nothing saddens; nothing more scares.
In addition to the fatality, the miseries, the errors of persons, the Lord who builds his reign is seen. An example of this completely new perspective could be the way to consider the years of life. We all know, and maybe we smile, of octogenarians who envy those who have fewer years than themselves. They are ashamed of their age. Well, they turn their gaze to the past, not to the future. The certainty of the Ascension reverses this perspective. While the years pass, the Christian is satisfied because he sees the days of the definitive encounter with Christ coming soon. He is happy to have lived, does not envy the young ones but 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 the revealed in us.”
First Reading: Acts 1:1-11
On the Mount of Olives, the crusaders built a small octagonal sanctuary. The Muslims converted it into a mosque in 1200. As I explained to pilgrims that this little structure today has a roof, but it was originally uncovered to commemorate the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, a light-hearted person of the group commented: “It had no roof because otherwise, ascending, Jesus would have hit his head.” Someone did not like the irreverent joke, but some others considered it a challenge to an in- depth study of the meaning of the text of Acts.
At first glance, the story of the Ascension smoothly flows but, when all particulars are considered, one starts to feel a certain embarrassment. It seems rather unlikely that Jesus acted as an astronaut who detaches himself from the ground, rises to the sky and disappears beyond the clouds. There are also some difficult to explain inconsistencies.
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 the “full of joy” (and who among us is happy when a friend departs?) and the disagreement on the location (Bethany is a little off the beaten path with respect to the Mount of Olives). What surprises is the apparent discrepancy about the date: according to Luke 24 Ascension takes place on the same day of Easter, while in the Acts it was forty days later (Acts 1:3). It is surprising that the author gives two conflicting information.
If we take for good the second version (the one of the forty days), the question spontaneously arises: What did Jesus do during this time? On Calvary, had he not promised to the thief: Today you will be with me in paradise? Why didn’t he go immediately?
The listed difficulties are not 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 another: he wants to respond to problems and dissolve 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 easily understood by his contemporaries. The first step to do is that of understanding the used language.
At the time of Jesus, the waiting for the Kingdom of God is very vivid. Apocalyptic writers announce it as imminent. They expect 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 is created. It is fueled by some expressions of Jesus that can easily be misunderstood: “You will not have passed through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Mt 10:23).
With the death of the Master, however, all hopes are dashed: the two of Emmaus say: “We had hoped that he would redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21). The resurrection awakens expectations: the conviction of an immediate return of Christ spreads among the disciples. Some fanatics, based themselves on alleged revelations, begin to even announce the date. The invocation “Maranatha,” Come Lord, is repeated in all the communities. The years pass but the Lord does not come. Many begin to be ironic: “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 P 3:4).
Luke writes in this situation of crisis. He realizes that a misunderstanding is at the origin of the bitter disappointment of Christians: the resurrection of Jesus marked the beginning of the Kingdom of God but not the end of the story. The construction of the new world has just begun. It will require a long time and much effort on the part of the disciples. How to correct the false expectations? Luke introduces a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles in the first page of the book of the Acts.
Let us consider the question that they propose: when will the Kingdom of God come? (v. 6). It is the same question that, at the end of the first century, all Christians want to direct to the Master. The response of the Risen One is directed to the members of Luke’s community more 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” (vv. 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 greet each other there after supper? What was the need to go to the Mount of Olives? And the other details: the cloud, the eyes turned skyward, the two men in white robes are they chronological records or literary devices?
In the Old Testament, there is a very similar story to ours. It is the “snatching” of Elijah (2 Kings 2:9-15). One day this great prophet finds himself near the Jordan River with his disciple Elisha. He, learning that the teacher is going to leave him, dares to ask him as inheritance two-thirds of his spirit. Elijah promises him, but only on one condition: if you see me when I am taken from you. Suddenly, a chariot with a mare of fire and, while Elisha looks heavenwards, Elijah is snatched in a whirlwind. Since that time, Elisha receives the spirit of the master and is enabled to continue his mission in this world. The Book of Kings will tell the works of Elisha. They are the same that Elijah did.
It is easy to reveal the common elements with the narrative of the Acts. Then the conclusion could not be anything but this: Luke made use of the grand and solemn scenario of Elijah’s snatching to express a reality that could not be verified with the senses nor adequately described with words: 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, the stone which 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 the Lord. The two men dressed in white are the same that appear at the tomb on Easter Day (Luke 24:4). The white color represents, according to the biblical symbolism, the world of God. The words put into the mouths of the two men 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 true (being two, they are credible witnesses).
Finally: the gaze turned skyward. As Elisha, the apostles and the Christians of Luke’s time are also contemplating 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. Already at the time of Luke, there were Christians who “looked to the sky,” that is, who regarded religion as an escape, not as an incentive to undertake measures to improve the lives of people. 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” (cf. 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 entered into the glory of God. His body, it is true, was placed in the tomb, but God had no need of the atoms of his body, to give him that “resurrected body” what Paul calls “spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:35-50).
Forty days after Easter no displacement in space and no “rapture” from the Mount of Olives toward heaven occurred. The Ascension took place in the instant of death, even though the disciples began to understand and to believe only from the “third day.”
The story of Luke is a page of theology, not the report of a columnist. In this page, he wants to tell us that Jesus was the first one 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, as an ignominious 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
Today we continue to speak of priests to indicate presbyters, to refer to the ministers of the Eucharist and Reconciliation. The Second Vatican Council has been careful to avoid doing so and has reserved the term priest—as does the rest of the New Testament—to Christ and to the people of God united with Christ in offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to the Father. The passage from the Letter to the Hebrews that is being proposed to us starts indicating two reasons why Jesus is the only true priest.
The first is that the ancient priests offered burnt offerings 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).
Then, the priesthood of the Old Covenant had as its objective the purification of the people from their sins. To atone for sins, the high priest entered—alone and in fear—the most sacred part of the temple, the Holy of Holies and poured the blood of the sacrificed animals on the stone that was thought to have been placed by God as the foundation of the world. It was also said that this stone would constitute the cap blocking the watery deep. If on the day of Yom Kippur, the sins of the people were not atoned for through the accurate and detailed performance of all the purification rites, the infernal waters would again be dumped on the world. The high priest repeated every year these liturgical actions but did not get any remission of sin. People continued to be bad and to need of expiation.
The priesthood of Jesus is completely different: he offered a unique and perfect sacrifice and did not shed the blood of animals, but gave his own blood and, with his gesture of love, has forever removed sin (Heb 9:25-27).
He will come again, not to repeat the sacrifices, but to take people with him that his one perfect sacrifice redeemed from all guilt (Heb 9:28).
In the second part of the reading (Heb 10:19-23), the author shows the result of the sacrifice offered by Christ and presents with a theological language the ascension to heaven that we celebrate today. He addresses the recipients of his letter calling them brothers and tells them: the ancient worship is over, Christ has inaugurated the new one. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke presented this truth using spatial imaging; he invited them to contemplate Jesus who ascends to heaven.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews introduces the same event with a theological language, referring to the liturgy of the temple of Jerusalem. It is Jesus the true, unique High Priest who, through the veil that separated the world of people from that of God, has entered in the eternal sanctuary of heaven. He entered and presented his sacrifice to the Father: not the offering of animals that were not interesting to God but his own life dedicated to others, for love. So he opened for all the entrance to the Father’s house.
The final exhortation to the disciple whose heart is now purified by his blood and body washed by the water of baptism is to be faithful, not to waver in the profession of that hope (vv. 21-23).
Gospel: Luke 24:46-53
We are able to study and learn about the material things, being able to apply intelligence and perspicacity. The secrets of God instead escape us; they are inscrutable; he alone can reveal them.
If we come to Jesus, if we retrace the steps of his life guided only by human wisdom we are faced with a deep mystery. We grope in the dark. From beginning to the end, what happens is a mystery. The same mother, Mary, is surprised and amazed when God’s plan begins to be implemented in the child (Lk 2:33.50). In faith, she has to “put together,” as anchors, various events (Lk 2:19) in order to discover the puzzle of the Lord. How to grasp its meaning?
This question the Risen One answers in the first verses of today’s Gospel (vv. 46-47). He—says Luke—opened the mind of the disciples to understand the Scriptures: “Thus it is written….” The light that illuminates the events of Easter can come only from the Word of God proclaimed by the prophet. In the Bible—Jesus says—it was already foretold that the Messiah would suffer, would die and rise again.
It is hard to find such explicit statement in the Old Testament. However, there is no doubt that what has changed the minds of the disciples and made them understand that the Messiah of God was very different from what they had expected. The texts of the prophet Isaiah speak of the Servant of the Lord as “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 Scripture: “Repentance and forgiveness in his name would be proclaimed to all the nations” (v. 47). Hence the reference to the biblical text is clear. It alludes to the mission of the Servant of the Lord: “I will make you the light of the nations that my salvation will reach to the ends of the earth” (Is 49:6).
According to the prophet, it is the duty of the Messiah to bring salvation to all nations. How will this prophecy come about if Jesus limited his activities to his people if he offered salvation only to the Israelites (Mt 15:24)?
In the second part of today’s Gospel (vv. 48-49), he answers this question: Jesus will become “light of the people” through the witness of his disciples. It is a task too superior to human capabilities. To carry out the mission of Christ good will and good quality are not enough. One needs to rely on his own strength. That is the reason for the promise: “So remain in the city until you are clothed with power from above” (v. 49).
It is the announcement of the sending of the Spirit, the One who will become the star of the age of the Church. In the Acts of the Apostles, its presence in key moments and its assistance in the decisive choices made by the disciples will be often remembered.
Luke’s Gospel ends with the story of the Ascension (vv. 50-53). Before entering the glory of the Father, Jesus blesses the disciples (v. 51). At the end of the liturgical celebrations in the temple, 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 jobs, confident that the Lord would bring to fruition all their efforts and all their hard work. The blessing of Jesus accompanies the community of his disciples and it is the promise and guarantee of the full success of the work, which is about to begin.
The final appeal could only be but to rejoice: the disciples “returned to Jerusalem full of joy” (v. 52). Luke is the evangelist of joy. Already on the first page of his Gospel, we read of the angel of the Lord who says to Zacharias: “He will bring joy and gladness to you, and many will rejoice at his birth” (Lk 1:14). Shortly after, in the story of Jesus’ birth, the angel again appears who says to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid. I am here to give you good news, great joy for all the people” (Lk 2:10).
The first reason why the disciples rejoice, despite not having the Master visibly present with them, is the fact that they understood that he is not, as his enemies thought, a prisoner of death.
They have had the experience of his resurrection; they are certain that he crossed first the “veil of the temple” that separated the world of people from that of God. So he showed that everything that happens on earth: successes and mishaps, injustices, suffering and even the most absurd events, such as those that have happened to him, do not escape God’s plan. If this is the destiny of every person, death no longer causes fear; Jesus transformed it into a birth to life with God. This is the first reason to deal with hope even the most dramatic and complicated situations.
The light of the Scriptures made them understand that Jesus did not go to another place, has not strayed, but remained with the people. His way of being present is no longer the same but is no less real. Before Easter, he was conditioned by all the limitations to which we are subject. Not anymore and he can be close to every person, always. With the Ascension, his presence has not diminished; it has increased! Here is the second reason for the joy of the disciples and ours.