Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord
The Acts of the Apostles supplies the first reading, the story of the Ascension of the Lord from earth into heaven.
This passage is the beginning of Acts. As is the case with the Gospel of Luke, Acts seems to have been a work composed for one person. The name of this person is Theophilus. Was this a proper name, or a title, since in Greek, it means “friend of God.”
In any case, these first eleven verses of Acts have an especially powerful message for us at the close of Easter time. Resplendent in the message is the ascension of Jesus into heaven, or the lifting of Jesus from earthly space and the return to heaven. Ascension, rather than being assumed, reveals, as the Resurrection revealed, that Jesus is God, came from God, is eternally with God, and possesses the almighty power of God.
Other points are important. The reading gives the credentials of the Apostles. Jesus chose them to witness the Ascension. They were not bystanders. It was no coincidence. The Ascension was another moment in which Jesus taught the Apostles as no one else was taught.
They were special students, but they were privileged because the Lord gave them a unique mission. They would be the instrument to carry the Redemption to places faraway and to generations yet to be born.
The Apostles were humans. They were confused. Peter showed that they could be weak. So did Judas, who abandoned Jesus. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would give them insight and wisdom.
To underscore the divinity of Jesus, and the divine mission of Jesus, angels appeared after the Ascension telling the Apostles to go on with their mission to preach the Gospel and to bring into the world the mercy, love, and presence of God in Jesus.
The Epistle to the Ephesians, the source of the second reading, is a beautiful prayer, asking God to give the followers of Jesus wisdom and insight. God’s wisdom and strength, the reading states, will be “distributed among the members of the Church”. It counsels believers to put everything under the feet of Jesus, the “head of the Church.”
St. Matthew’s Gospel, the last reading, offers an Ascension Narrative. Jesus leads the Apostles to a place near Bethany. (The Mount of Olives, traditionally said to have been the site of the Ascension, is near Bethany.) Jesus tells the Apostles that the Scriptures have been fulfilled.
God’s communication with people and nearness to people all through the centuries, and God’s mercy, are real.
In Acts, Matthew also establishes the Apostles as the chief witnesses, and primary students, of the Lord. Through them, the Spirit will continue to come.
Thus, the Apostles watch the Ascension of Jesus and then return to the city. They know their task, but they still are unsure, so they pray in the temple constantly and proclaim the praises of God.
The readings powerfully testify that Jesus is God. Although crucified and dead, Jesus rose again to life and then ascended into heaven. He went to heaven, breaking the bonds of earth, with the power of God. He was not taken into heaven.
The readings are strongly ecclesial. They stress the identity of the Apostles, both in the first and in the third readings. The Apostles learned from Jesus. Albeit humans, as Pentecost would teach us, the Spirit would come to guide them. Important for us today, they formed the Church, of which true believers are part. Through them, in Christ, God lives in the Church and touches us through the Church.
The Easter story is approaching its conclusion. The final message is that Jesus lives still in the Church. He has not gone from us. He is here.
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