ASCENSION OF THE LORD
Acts 1, 1-11
Eph 1, 17-23
Mt 28, 16-20
The bodily disappearance of Jesus marks the beginning of the mission and commitment of the Church. The Lord’s Ascension, more than a memory, is a demand and a call to mission and commitment.
The first reading (Acts 1, 1-11) constitutes the general introduction of the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which connects directly with the ending of the Gospel of Luke (Acts 1, 1: “In my first account, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up to heaven…”; cf. Lk 24, 45-53). In this way, Luke follows the literary use of the time of introducing the second volume of a work with an introduction that summarises the first. To Luke, the earthly activity of Jesus concludes not at the moment of his death, but with his ascension to heaven, which naturally includes the resurrection experience of the apparitions. That is why from now on, the apostles, those who have seen the Lord and have been instructed by him “through the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1, 2), will be the authorized witnesses of the word of Jesus and of his resurrection. Luke, in fact, insists on the realism of the apparitions and on the teachings of the Risen Jesus to the apostles before going up to heaven: “In the time after his suffering he showed them in many convincing ways that he was alive, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking to them about the reign of God” (Acts 1, 3).
The number “forty” is a symbolic number that reminds of a perfect and archetype period of time. The time necessary to pass from one stage to another in the history of salvation and therefore the time of the important and decisive divine manifestations. Number forty calls to mind the forty years that Israel walked in the desert being tried and educated by God (Dt 8, 2-6), the forty days that Moses passed on Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God (Ex 24, 18) and Jesus’ forty days in the desert before beginning his mission (Lk 4, 1-2). “Forty” is a number that reminds of the time of trial and necessary preparation. In the rabbinic tradition, in fact, number forty had a symbolic value to indicate a period of complete and normative learning. Luke wants to make known that the Apostles received the authorized and complete formation that prepared them to continue his work and to be witnesses of the kingdom of God in history.
Jesus recommends to the apostles not to move away from Jerusalem and to wait for the promise of the Father, the gift of the Holy Spirit (v. 4). Jerusalem, the city in which Jesus concluded his journey, becomes the starting point of the mission of the church. In Jerusalem the apostles will receive the eschatological gift of the Holy Spirit and from there they will continue to be witnesses of Jesus until the end of the world. The mission of the Christian community takes root in the holy city, the see of the Temple and the centre of the entire holy land, because as Isaiah announced: “from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Is 2, 3). In Jerusalem the apostles will be “baptized in the Holy Spirit”, that is, they will be immersed in the divine and life-giving power of the Spirit who will completely fill them (Acts 2).
The account of the Ascension alludes to the mentality of the apostles in relation to the establishment of the messianic kingdom in favour of the chosen people, in consonance with the messianic hope of the Old Testament: “Lord, are you going to restore the rule to Israel now?” (v. 6). This expectation was not necessarily nationalistic or political, but it reflected the understanding of the people of the first covenant that limited the salvation to Israel. At the same time the question evokes a question of the early Church: “When will the Kingdom be restored?”. Jesus rejects categorically any type of apocalyptic speculation. Only the Father, who guides the history of salvation, knows this definitive moment of the kingdom: “It is not for you to know times or dates that the Father has decided by his own authority” (v. 7). At another time, Jesus teaches them that there is no direct temporal connection between the gift of the Spirit and the coming of the kingdom. The experience of the Spirit will rather serve to open the beginning of the time and mission of the Church (Acts 1, 8).
After this dialogue with Jesus, Luke relates the ascension of the Lord (vv. 9-11). A proper understanding of the account demands to take into account a known symbolic scheme present in many religions and also in the Bible, that places on “high”, in “heaven” all that is better and that dominates the “horizontal” sphere, from “below” in our world, in which evil and death are placed. The Bible speaks many times that God “comes down” from heaven (Gn 11, 5; Ex 19, 11-13; Ps 144, 5) to speak with man and then “goes up” again (Gn 17, 22) after carrying out his work. The symbolic language of the Ascension should not be interpreted on the basis of spatial schemes that represent only the external covering of the message that is desired to be communicated. It is necessary to understand the Ascension from the viewpoint of the resurrection and to grasp the fundamental message in this mystery: Jesus has been introduced eternally in the sphere of transcendence and in the world of the divine.
Luke has tried to make visible the affirmation of faith in relation to the divine plenitude of the Risen Lord and his absolute lordship in the world. In the text, however, the emphasis is placed most of all on the “farewell”. It deals with a “separation”. The Lord Jesus is no longer physically present in our midst. His glorified body is now present in history with the life-giving power of God. The “cloud” that conceals Jesus from the sight of the disciples is precisely the sign of this new form of presence. A sign that “conceals” and “reveals” at the same time the transcendence of God. In the Old Testament, the cloud indicates the closeness of Yahweh (cf. Ex 13, 21; 24, 16.18; 33, 9-11; 34, 5; Ez 1, 4; Ps 96/97, 2; etc.).
The apostles appear “staring” at Jesus until the last moment (v. 10). A “stare” that should not be interpreted in a purely material sense. With this indication Luke wants to stress that they are the witnesses of the whole of Jesus’ history, including the moment of plenitude of the mystery of the resurrection, when Jesus is glorified and introduced into the world of God. Just like Elisha who, looking at Elijah who was brought up to heaven in a chariot of fire, was worthy to receive a double portion of his spirit (2 Kings 2, 9-12), the apostles as well who “stare” at Jesus will receive the Spirit of Jesus. The Risen One will continue being present with the apostles through the Spirit.
The text of Acts, in summary, invites to overcome a passive faith and excessively bound to what is spectacular: “Why do you stand here looking up at the skies?” (Acts 1, 11). These words are an indirect exhortation not to lose time when it is necessary to be witnesses of Jesus and not to wait for miraculous solutions or special revelations from heaven. According to the words of Jesus in v. 8, true faith is based on the power of the Spirit, in the Christian witnessing in the world and in the universal openness of the church.
The second reading (Eph 1, 17-23) makes it clear that the glorification of Christ produces a radical transformation in humanity. The energy of the Risen Christ involves and compels the whole church, which is his body in history, to live the newness of the resurrection and to announce it to the world. “May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, grant you a spirit of wisdom… May he enlighten your innermost vision that you may know the great hope to which he has called you… the immeasurable scope of his power in us who believe. It is like the strength he showed in raising Christ from the dead and seating him at his right hand in heaven.” (Eph 1, 18.104.22.168)
The gospel (Mt 28, 16-20) refers to the resurrection apparition in Galilee with which the Gospel of Matthew concludes. It is arranged in three parts: the presentation of Christ, the mission and the promise of the Lord’s presence until the end of time. The scene is on a “mountain”, biblical symbol that reminds of a privileged space where God revealed himself in the first covenant (cf. Ex 19; 1 Kings 19). The geographical indication refers above all to the history of Jesus, who proclaims the beatitudes from the mountainside (Mt 5, 1; 8, 1), went up the mountain to pray alone (Mt 14, 23); seated on the mountainside, he welcomed the multitude and healed the sick (Mt 15, 29); and, on a mountain he revealed himself to the disciples as the Messiah sent by God (Mt 17, 1.5). The last encounter and the ultimate revelation of Jesus also take place in a mountain, a symbolic space of the revelation and salvation of God.
(a) The presentation of Jesus. It deals with a solemn declaration about the absolute lordship of Jesus in heaven and on earth: “Full authority has been given to me both in heaven and on earth.” (Mt 28, 18) The passive formulation of the sentence indicates that Jesus has received power from God, as in Mt 11, 27 where the Father is stated as subject: “Everything has been given to me by my Father.” The word “authority” translates the Greek word exousía, which indicates the power, right and capacity that characterize the word and work of Jesus to accomplish the plan of the kingdom (Mt 7, 29: “he taught with exousía; 9, 6: “the Son of Man has exousía on earth to forgive sins”; 21, 27: “neither will I tell you on what exousía I do the things I do”). In two occasions this messianic exousía also extends to the disciples and to the community (9, 8: “a feeling of awe came over the crowd, and they praised God for giving such exousía to men”; 10, 1: “then he summoned his twelve disciples and gave them exousía over unclean spirits”). The Risen Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth, with the messianic authority to transform human history and bring it to the fullness of God.
The disciples prostrated themselves in humble adoration before Jesus, as the women had done before on the day of the resurrection (Mt 28, 9). But Matthew adds a significant detail: “though some hesitated” (Mt 28, 17). The Easter faith is not exempted from doubt, which will also accompany the faith of the Christian community in history. It is the weak faith of the disciples who were afraid in the midst of the storm on the lake (Mt 8, 26), and of Peter who began to sink when he became impressed by the violent winds (Mt 14, 30-31). Only the presence and the word of Jesus will make that the believer overcome doubt and fear and mature in the journey of faith.
(b) The mission. Jesus commands his disciples: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to observe everything I have commanded you.” (Mt 28, 19-20) The mission of the church seem to be without any type of limits or restrictions, destined to reach all men and women of the earth. The verbs used are significant: “go” implies the dynamism of the Christian life and of the mission that should characterize the disciple of Jesus; “make disciples” indicates the testimony in words and works through which the announcement of Jesus is brought to others; “baptize” reminds of the sign by which men and women are configured radically with the Risen Christ and the sacramental activity of the Church itself that sanctifies the earthly realities, communicating divine life to them; “observe” indicates the response of the believer, his full acceptance and obedience to the word of Jesus in his daily life.
(c) The presence of Jesus. It is the last word of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. A promise which is a source of confidence and hope for the disciples. In the Old Testament, the phrase “I am with you” expresses the guarantee of a saving and active presence of God in favour of his chosen ones or of his people (cf. Ex 3, 12; Jer 1, 8; Is 41, 10; 43, 5). Jesus, constituted as universal Lord through his resurrection, brings to fullness this saving presence of God. He is the “Emmanuel”, the “God-with-us”, as Matthew calls him at the beginning of his gospel, bringing to mind a text from Isaiah which refers to the messianic descendant of David (Mt 1, 22-23; cf. Is 7, 14). The presence of Jesus now is not limited by space and time in the land of Israel. Nor does it deal with a provisional presence. The disciples will accomplish the universal mission of Jesus under the sign of his consoling and comforting presence.