Without the Spirit, the Gospel is but a doctrine
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 did not receive 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 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 them. 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 a definitive encounter with Christ coming soon. He is happy to have lived, does not envy the young 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 8:5-8,14-17
On the Mount of Olives, a small octagonal sanctuary was built by the Crusaders. It was later converted into a mosque by the Muslims in 1200. I explained to the 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 deepen the meaning of the text of Acts.
At first glance, the story of the Ascension smoothly flow 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 difficulties 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 “Marana tha,” 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 on 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 was 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 K 2:9-15).
One day, this great prophet Elijah finds himself near the Jordan River with his disciple Elisha. Elisha, on learning that the teacher is going to leave him, dares to ask Elijah two-thirds of his spirit as inheritance. The prophet 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 appeared and, while Elisha looks heavenward, 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 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: Ephesians 1:17-23
Paul asks God for wisdom for his Christians. This is not human wisdom but the intelligence to understand the mystery of the church. He asks God to enlighten their eyes and hearts so that they may understand how great is the hope to which they were called.
The first reading called on Christians not to neglect the concrete duties of this world. The second completes this thought and urges Christians not to forget that their life is not enclosed within the horizon of this world. It is because, even if engaged in the activities of this life, they are always waiting for Christ’s return to take them permanently with himself.
Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20
Matthew does not describe the ascension of Jesus as the Acts of the Apostles do but, using different images, he suggests the same message. Unlike Luke and John, he places the encounter with the Risen not in Jerusalem but in Galilee. This geographical setting has a theological value: the evangelist wants to say that the mission of the Apostles begins where their Master had begun.
Galilee was a despised region. Due to the frequent invasions from the north and east, it was inhabited by a diverse population, derived from a mixture of races. Isaiah designates it as “the land of the Gentiles”, that is, of the pagans (Is 9:1). The Orthodox Jews looked at it with suspicion and distrust. To Nicodemus, who shyly tried to defend Jesus, the Pharisees of Jerusalem objected: “Look it up and see for yourself that no prophet is to come from Galilee” (Jn 7:52).
It is exactly to these semi-pagans—Matthew wants to say—that now the gospel is destined. Jerusalem, the city that rejected the Messiah of God, lost her privilege to be the spiritual center of Israel.
The Risen One meets the disciples on the mountain (v. 16).
Commenting on the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Lent, we have clarified the meaning of the mountain. It was the site of the manifestations of God; he was manifested to Moses and Elijah at the top of the mountain.
Matthew often uses this image: he places Jesus on the mount every time he teaches or performs some particularly important acts.
If one keeps this fact in mind, one can understand the meaning of the scene narrated in today’s passage: the sending of the disciples in the world is a decisive event. Not only that, but one who had the experience of the Risen Lord and has assimilated his message on the mountain is empowered to fulfill this mission.
The remark that “although some apostles doubted” (v. 17) is amazing. How could they still have doubts if they had already met the Risen Lord in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday?
From the point of view of catechesis, this particular is indicative. For Matthew, the Christian community is not made up of perfect people, but of people in whom good and evil, light and darkness continue to be present. We encounter this situation among the first disciples: they have faith but they still have doubts and uncertainties.
It is possible to believe in Christ and have doubts. The contrary is impossible: faith cannot exist together with the evidence. One cannot “believe” that the sun exists; there is the certainty, one can see it. The effects of its light and its heat are scientifically verifiable. In the field of faith, this evidence is impossible. Like the apostles, we, too, have a deep conviction of the truth of the resurrection of Christ, but it cannot be proven.
In the second part of the passage (vv. 18-20), there is the sending of the apostles to evangelize the whole world.
During his public life, Jesus had sent them to announce the kingdom of heaven with these instructions: “Do not visit pagan territory, and do not enter a Samaritan town. Go instead to the lost sheep of the people of Israel” (Mt 10:5-6). After Easter, their mission expands; it becomes universal.
The light was enkindled in Galilee when Jesus, having left Nazareth, settled in Capernaum. “The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light; on those who live in the land of the shadow of death a light has shone” (Mt 4:16). Now its light must shine in the whole world. As the prophets have announced, Israel becomes “light of the nations” (Is 42:6).
The time is decisive and Jesus refers to his authority: he was sent by the Father to bring the message of salvation; now he entrusts this task to the community of the disciples, giving them his own powers.
The church is called to make Christ present in the world. Through baptism, she generates new children that are inserted in the communion of the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Spirit. It is a sublime but difficult mission; it inspires awe and trepidation in those who are called to carry it out.
Every vocation is always accompanied by man’s fear and by God’s promise that assures: “Fear not, I am with you.” God guarantees to Jacob on his journey to an unknown land: “I am with you and I will keep you safe wherever you go. I will not leave you” (Gn 28:15). To Israel deported to Babylon, God says: “Since you are precious in my sight, and important—for I have loved you. Fear not, for I am with you” (Is 43:4-5). To Moses who objects: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the people of Israel out of Egypt?” He replies: “I will be with you” (Ex 3:11-12). To Paul in Corinth tempted to be discouraged, the Lord says: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you, so no one will harm you” (Acts 18:9-10). The promise of the Risen Lord to his disciples, who are about to take their first tentative steps, cannot be different: “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the world” (v. 20). The Gospel of Matthew closes as it had begun: with the appeal to the Emmanuel, the God with us, the name by which the Messiah was foretold by the prophets (Mt 1:22-23).
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