THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD
The words of the “two men dressed in white” directed to the apostles in Acts 1,10 synthesize the theology and spirituality of this solemnity: “Why are you standing here looking into the sky?” (Acts 1,10). It is an invitation to not lose time passively when it is necessary to be witnesses to Jesus and to not wait on heaven for miraculous situations or special revelations. The material disappearance of Jesus marks the beginning of the mission of the compromise of the Church. True faith is expressed, according to the words of Jesus in Acts 1,8, in the experience of the power of the Holy Spirit, in Christian witness in the world and universal openness of the Church. The ascension, more than remembrance, is obligation and call to the mission and to commitment.
In the first reading (Acts 1,1-11), to understand Luke’s narration it is necessary to keep in mind that he uses a well known symbolic outline present in many religions and also in the Bible, that places “on high,” in “heaven,” all that is better and that dominates the “horizontal” ambiance, of “down here,” of our world, in which is present evil and death. For this reason, the Bible speaks many times that God “comes down” from heaven to speak with man and woman (Gn 11,5; Ex 19,11-13; Ps 144,5) and “ascends” after realizing his work (Gn 17,22). Therefore, the ascension’s symbolic language should not be interpreted based on spatial concepts that represent only the packaging of the truth that he wants to communicate. It is necessary to read the ascension from the point of view of Easter and capture in this mystery the fundamental message: Jesus has been introduced eternally in the ambiance of the transcendental and into the world of the divine. Luke has intended to make visible the affirmation of the faith in relation with the divine fullness of the Risen One and his absolute lordship over the world. Nevertheless, in the text the stress is placed above all in the “farewell.” This treats of a “separation.” The Lord Jesus now is not presence in our midst in physical form; his glorified body is present now in history with the vivifying power of God. The “cloud” that hides Jesus from the sight of the apostles is precisely the sign of this new form of presence. A sign that, at the same time, “hides” and “reveals” the transcendence of God. In the Old Testament the cloud – the hid Yahweh’s presence – indicated, at the same time, his closeness: a majestic and hidden presence, but certain and saving for his people (cf. Ex 13,21; 24,16.18; 33,9-11; 34,5; Ez 1,4; Ps 96/97,2; etc.). The apostles appear “looking attentively” at Jesus until the last moment (v. 10). This “looking” ought not to be understood in a material sense. With this indication Luke wants to underline that they are witnesses of all of Jesus’ history, included the moment of the fullness of the Paschal mystery, when Jesus is glorified and introduced into God’s world. Like so Elisha that, looking at Elijah when he was carried to heaven in a chariot of fire, was worth to receive two-thirds of his spirit (2 K 2,9-12), also the apostles that “look” at Jesus will receive the Spirit of Jesus. The Resurrected One will continue to be present in the apostles through the Spirit, after the ascension of the Lord and until the day that he will return in the same way they saw him leave (v. 10), the apostles, and with them, the Church of all times have a mission: to be witnesses until the ends of the earth.
The gospel (Mk 16,14-20) forms part of the so-called “final canon” of the gospel of Mark (Mk 16,9-20) that was not redacted by the evangelist, but that was added to his book probably in the 2nd century AD, as the analysis of the Greek manuscripts show, and all of the textual problematic of which they are derived. Though Mark is not the author of these verses, this treats of a canonical and inspired text that contains a rich spiritual message that we order in three ideas:
(a) Hardness of heart. – In the first place Jesus reproached the disciples for their sklêrokardía (“incredulity and obstinacy”) (Mk 16,14), a type of spiritual infirmity that has impeded them from recognizing him and participation in the joy of Easter. The sklêrokardía is shown through some symptoms: incapability to believe that things can be distinct and better, rejection of the mysterious designs of God, excessive security in what is believed to be known and one’s own capacities, fear of abandoning themselves to and risking themselves to God’s new ways, etc. It is the spiritual sickness that impedes faith, blocks hope and makes love difficult.
(b) The mission in a hostile world. – Despite the difficult that the disciples have experienced in accepting Jesus’ resurrection, he sends them on a mission “to all the world.” The barriers of the peoples have disappeared and Jesus resurrected is Lord of all the earth, that sends his own with a message without distinction of persons, that offers to men a double option: to believe, to be baptized and save themselves, or to not believer and be condemned (v. 15). A type of “two ways,” in the style of Dt 30,15: I place today before you life and good, death and evil. The evangelical message is not imposed. Each one will have to decide. The mission is described by Jesus with these features: the disciples will tear down all manifestations of evil in his name (“you will expel demons”); with his word and their works they will do good to all above all to the most needy (“you will impose your hands and the sick will be healed”); they will carry the word of the gospel to all nations and cultures of the world (“you will speak entirely new languages”); the mission will be realized in the midst of a hostile world, filled with dangers (“serpents”, “poison”), but nothing will harm them.
(c) The constant presence of Jesus in the midst of the disciples. – The ascension is narrated in one phrase: “And so the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven; there at the right hand of God he took his place” (v. 19). The language is theological and symbolic. Again, as in Luke, we find the spatial symbolism “on high” – “down here” to express the passage of Jesus, from a historical condition to a glorious condition, of the world of men and women to the world of divine transcendence. It is a way to indicate the separation that is produced between Jesus and the disciples after Easter. “Seated at the right hand of God,” in turn, is a phrase that indicates the lordship of Jesus, that as Lord of history dominates above all the universe, seated as a monarch and participation in the power (“the right hand”) of God. The text continues affirming: “while they, going out, preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word by the signs that accompanied it” (v. 20). The same Jesus, that as Lord of history has been enthroned gloriously in the world of God, is present in his disciples’ midst, working with them and through them. The gospel of Mark concludes with a word of great hope. Jesus is in the Church’s midst, he always accompanies her and works through her. The Resurrected One, the Lord of life and of death, is with us and walks with us until the end of time.