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Commentary to the ASCENSION OF THE LORD – YEAR A

Fernando Armellini - Sat, May 20th 2023


With the coming of Jesus in the glory of the Father, did anything on earth change?  Outwardly, nothing. The people's lives continued to be what they were before: sowing, reaping, trading, building homes, traveling, crying and partying as usual. Even the apostles did not receive any relief from the dramas and anxieties that other people experienced. However, something incredibly new happened: a new light was projected on the existence of people.

On a foggy day, the sun can suddenly appear. The mountains, the sea, the fields, the trees of the forest, the scent of the flowers, the songs of the birds may remain the same, but the way of seeing, hearing, or smelling them is different.

It also happens to anyone enlightened by faith in Jesus after his ascension into heaven: they see the world with new eyes. Everything makes sense, nothing saddens, and nothing scares. The Lord who builds his reign is seen above and beyond human frailty, misery, and ineptitude.

An example of this completely new perspective could be a way of considering the years that span our lives. We all know, and maybe we smile over the octogenarians who envy those with more years left in their lives. They regret the passing of the years, so they turn their gaze to the past, not the future. The certainty of the Ascension reverses this perspective. As the years pass, the Christian is satisfied because he sees the days of a definitive encounter with Christ as imminent. He is happy to have lived, does not envy the young, and looks at them with tenderness.

• To internalize the message, we repeat: “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing 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.”


On the Mount of Olives, a small octagonal sanctuary was built during the Crusades. It was later converted into a mosque by Muslims in the year 1200. I explained to a group of pilgrims that this small structure today has a roof, but it was initially uncovered in commemoration of the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. A light-hearted person in the group commented: ‘It had no roof because otherwise Jesus would have hit his head when he was going up.’ Some did not like the irreverent joke, but others considered it a challenge to deepen their understanding of the text in the Acts of the Apostles.

At first glance, the Ascension story flows smoothly, but there is a feeling of embarrassment when all the particulars are considered. It seems rather unlikely that Jesus was like an astronaut hurtling up from the ground, rising to the sky and disappearing beyond the clouds. It is also 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’ bit (and who among us is happy when a friend departs?) and the disagreement about the location (Bethany is a little off-the-beaten-path to the Mount of Olives). What surprises is the apparent discrepancy about the date: according to Luke 24, the Ascension takes place on the same day of Easter, while in Acts, it was 40 days later (Acts 1:3). Surprisingly, the author gives two conflicting pieces of information. If we take the second version (the one of the forty days) as the credible one, the question spontaneously arises: What did Jesus do during this time? On Calvary, did he not promise the thief: Today you will be with me in paradise? So why didn't he ascend to heaven immediately?

These apparent discrepancies are enough to warn us that perhaps Luke’s intention was not to inform us about the where, when, and how Jesus went up to heaven. Perhaps (indeed, surely) his concern lies elsewhere: 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 the artists of words do, he composes a page of theology using a literary genre and images easily understood by his contemporaries. The first step is to understand the literary form.

At the time of Jesus, the coming of the Kingdom of God was anticipated as being a spectacular event. 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).

However, with the death of the Master, all hopes are dashed: the two on the road to 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 their predictions on alleged revelations and even began to 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 incredulous: “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” (Ps 3:4). Luke writes about this crisis. He realizes that a misunderstanding lies 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 take much time and 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 Acts. Let us consider the question they propose: when will the Kingdom of God come? (v. 6) It is the same question that all Christians want to direct to the Master at the end of the first century. The response of the Risen One is directed to the members of Luke’s community rather 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 say their goodbyes there? 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?

There is a similar story in the Old Testament—the ‘snatching’ of Elijah (2 K 2:9-15).One day, this great prophet finds himself near the Jordan River with his disciple Elisha. Onlearning that the teacher will leave him, Elisha dares to ask Elijah for two-thirds of his spirit as an inheritance. The prophet promises it to him, but only on one condition: if you see me when I am taken from you. Suddenly, a chariot with a fire horse appears and, while Elisha looks heavenward, Elijah is snatched in a whirlwind. There and then, Elisha receives the spirit of the master and is enabled to continue his mission in this world. The book of Kings recounts the work of Elisha. It is a continuation of Elijah’s.

It is easy to reveal the common elements within the narrative of the Acts. So it could not end in any other way. Luke made use of Elijah's grand and solemn scenario flying into the clouds to express a reality that the senses could not verify, nor adequately described in words: the Passover of Jesus, his Resurrection, and his entry into the glory of the Father.

In the Old Testament, the cloud identifies a spot where God is present (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 as Lord. The two men dressed in white are the same as those who appear at the tomb on Easter Day (Lk 24:4). The white of their clothing 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 true (being two, they are credible witnesses).

Finally: the gaze turned skyward. As with 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 his 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 40 days with him (in the language of Judaism, it was the time needed for the disciple's preparation),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.

At the time of Luke, there were already Christians who ‘looked to the sky,’ that is, who regarded religion as an escape, not as 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” (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 did not need the physical body to give him that ‘resurrected body’ that Paul calls ‘spiritual body’ (1 Cor 15:35-50). On the 40th day after Easter, no space displacement or ‘rapture’ joining the Mount of Olives with heaven occurred. 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 a media report. On 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 far more absurd, like his 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

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.


Paul asks God for wisdom for his Christians. It is not human wisdom but a type of intelligence that can give understanding to the mystery of the Resurrection. He asks God to enlighten their eyes and hearts so that they may understand the greatness of the hope to which they were called.

The First Reading called on Christians not to neglect their concrete duties in this world. The second fills out 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 themselves.

Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”


Matthew does not describe the Ascension of Jesus in the way the Acts of the Apostles does, but using different images, he suggests the same message. Unlike Luke and John, he places the encounter with the Risen Jesus, not in Jerusalem, but Galilee. This geographical setting has a theological value: the evangelist wants to say that the apostles' mission begins where their Master had begun.

Galilee was a despised region. Due to 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 precisely 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 a mountain.

Matthew often uses this image: he places Jesus on the mount every time he teaches or performs some particularly important act. If we keep this fact in mind, we can understand the meaning of the scene narrated in today’s passage: sending the disciples into the world is a decisive event. Not only that, but it is also those with an experience of the Risen Lord and have assimilated his message on the mountain that are empowered to fulfill this mission.

The remark that “although some apostles doubted” (v. 17) is amazing. How could they still doubt if they had already met the Risen Lord in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday? From the point of view of catechesis, this particular remark is indicative. For Matthew, the Christian community is not made ??up of perfect people but those 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 alongside concrete evidence. We do not ‘believe’ that the sun exists; there is a certainty since we can see it. The effect 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 we cannot prove it.

In the second part of the passage (vv. 18-20), the apostles are sent out 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 the “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 a varied range of the power he possesses. The Church is called to make Christ present in the world. Through baptism, she generates new children inserted into 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 called to carry it out.

Every vocation is accompanied by human 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” (Gen 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, who is 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 any 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).


READ: The Gospel ends on a glorious and triumphant note. The eleven joyfully join Jesus on the mountaintop. Jesus has power over all, and he sends out his disciples to continue his ministry in all nations.

REFLECT: What a wonderful ending for the Gospel! So different from the other Gospels! The Church begins with Jesus commissioning the eleven. All are welcome to join!

PRAY: Pray for the evangelization of all people. Pray that the Gospel will be preached from one end of the earth to the other.

ACT: Proclaim the Gospel by how you live. Let your actions flow from your beliefs. Jesus is risen! Alleluia!




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