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 second reading (Hebrews 9,24-28) offers us a rich reflection about the only and definitive priesthood of Jesus in the light of the ancient Israelite priesthood. In the first place, the author refers to the parallel that existed in Judaism between the sanctuary of the Temple (the “Holy of Holies”), and the sanctuary of Heaven. While the high priest entered the sanctuary of the Temple once a year, Christ entered once and for all to the heavenly sanctuary to lead to God redeemed men and women (v. 24). Afterwards, we find the opposition between the high priest that offered once a year immolated victims and Christ that offered himself once for the salvation of the world (v. 25). Jesus, that certainly was not a Levitical priest, is defined as the authentic “high priest,” that “having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (v. 28).
The gospel (Lk 24,46-53) places us in the evening of Easter. Luke places upon the lips of the Resurrected Lord that which constitutes the fundamental nucleus of the kerygma: the death-resurrection of Jesus (v. 46). It is evident, nonetheless, that for Luke not only the death-resurrection, but rather also the diffusion of the salvation message to the pagan nations belongs to the work of the Messiah (v. 47). In other words, Jesus’ mission does not conclude with his death-resurrection, but rather continues with the proclamation of the Gospel to all the peoples of the earth. The words of the Resurrected Lord are a synthesis of the program of the apostolic mission through which Jesus will carry out his universal messiahship. The Apostles are officially recognized “witnesses” for the Resurrected One (v. 48). They have lived with Jesus (Acts 1,22), have received the gift of understanding the happenings of Easter, have been sent to the nations, but above all can guarantee the certainty of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1,22; 2,32; 3,15). After having given the disciples charge, the resurrected Jesus assures them of the assistance of the Holy Spirit, mentioned in a hidden way through the expressions: “the promised gift by my Father” and “the power that comes from on high” (v. 49).
The last three verses relate the Ascension of the Lord in a place close to Bethany, to the east of Jerusalem (vv. 50-53). Jesus lifts up his hands and blesses the Apostles (v. 50). It is the last gesture of the Lord in Luke’s gospel. The blessing of Jesus extends over all the apostolic word and over all the evangelizing work of the church throughout time and space. Afterwards, Luke affirms plainly: “While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven” (v. 51). The terminology of this verse is taken from a known literary genre in Judaism and in the Greco-Roman worlds called “accounts of rapture”, with which the entrance into the celestial sphere of some important person was recounted. The raptures of Enoch and Elijah are known. Luke uses the passive verb (“was taken” into heaven), underlining the powerful action of God. The ascension is presented as the culmination of Easter, the fullness of the enthronement of Jesus as Lord. To the blessing, corresponds the gesture of adoration of the disciples that recognize the divinity and lordship of Jesus.
The gospel of Luke concludes with the mention of the Temple and the praise of God. It ends, therefore, as it began: in the Temple (Lk 1,5-25). But now the Temple is not simply the sacred building of Judaism, but rather the place in which Jesus taught the people (Lk 19,47), the place in which his witnesses are gathered and it starting point of the Christian mission. The theme of praise, we find also in the beginning of the gospel (Lk 1,64; 2,28) as man’s response before the marvels worked by God. Now the privileged motive of praise is the Resurrection of Jesus.