May 23, 2017 // Columns
‘You will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth’
Feast of the Ascension of the Lord
This weekend, many dioceses in the United States liturgically celebrate the feast of the Ascension of the Lord. Other dioceses observe this weekend as the seventh Sunday of Easter. These reflections will refer to the biblical readings for the Feast of the Ascension.
The first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, is from the beginning of Acts. As with the Gospel of Luke, the author addresses Theophilus, whose identity is unclear. Was Theophilus his actual name? Perhaps it was. Perhaps it was not. “Theophilus” also is a title, meaning “friend of God.”
In any case, this initial form of address recalls that Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles are inseparably linked. Acts simply continues the story begun in the Gospel. At some point, editors divided these books and placed the Gospel of John between them. This arrangement remains today in biblical translations.
This is important. It shows that in the mind of the holy author, the process of salvation did not end with the Lord’s ascension into heaven. After the Lord went to heaven, salvation continued as the apostles proceeded with the mission accomplished by Jesus, ordained long ago by God.
A lesson to be learned is how important the apostles were. In Acts, the text clearly reveals that the first Christians greatly revered the 11 surviving apostles, that Peter led these apostles and spoke for them, that they performed miracles just as Jesus had performed miracles, and that they exercised the very power of Jesus in calling Matthias to be an apostle, equal to the others.
Still, despite all these assertions as to their dignity, they were only humans. They needed the inspiration of God.
As its second reading, the church presents a selection from the Epistle to the Ephesians.
This reading is a prayer that all Christians might find true wisdom. True wisdom reposes only in the Lord. Earthly wisdom can be faulty, and indeed often it is faulty.
For the last reading, the church gives us a lesson from St. Matthew’s Gospel. Again, the status of the apostles is the point. The apostles are with Jesus. They see and hear the risen Lord. They literally experience the resurrection of Christ.
Jesus tells them to go into the world. They should exclude or ignore no one. They should bring all humankind into God’s family by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In this last instruction from Jesus is a clear and direct revelation of the Holy Trinity.
The church, having proclaimed the Resurrection, now calls us to look at ourselves and our times. Christ still is with us, the church declares emphatically. As the bond between Luke and Acts tells us, salvation, perfected in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, still is on earth. He did not just live 20 centuries ago. He still lives. He still gives life, blessing us, forgiving us and taking us home to heaven. Jesus is with us, even after the ascension.
He is with us now in the church, because the church stands on the foundation laid long ago by the apostles. From them it has received the message of Jesus. From them it has received the commission to reach to everyone with the blessings of salvation. From them, it has received the power to forgive sin and to bestow the new life of grace. From them, it received the sacraments, now offered to us.
The church brings us to Jesus, and it brings Jesus to us. As Ephesians tells us, only Jesus is the source of truth.
We are not dragged kicking and screaming to Jesus, however. We must turn to Jesus willingly and totally because we humbly realize our need for Jesus.
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