First reading: Acts 1:1-11
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 47
Second reading: Ephesians 1:17-23
Link to readings.
The Ascension of the Lord presents more than usual difficulty for preachers. Without being too technical about it, I think we have to make clear to people that the biblical account given in the First Reading, Acts 1:1-11 (see also Luke 24:46-53) does not mean that Jesus, at the end of his earthly career, literally ascended in way described. The very clear parallels with the description of the ascent into heaven of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 2:1-18) suggest that St. Luke is completing here his characteristic depiction of Jesus in terms of that persecuted prophet. Having escaped the clutches of his enemies by rising from the dead, Jesus now makes an Elijah-like ascent to heaven.
In biblical language and imagery this signals the truth that the One who had been crucified on the trumped-up charge of being a political Messiah, a rebel against Rome, and who God raised from the dead to vindicate his true messianic status, has now entered messianic glory at God’s right hand. He has indeed been removed from human sight to commence a reign in heaven but this does not mean an abandonment of either the disciples or his saving mission in the world. On the contrary, through the Spirit he will be present and active in a new mode of being. The disciples had felt the power of the Spirit that was upon him during his earthly life. Now they are assured that, as a result of his messianic enthronement, an empowering ‘clothing’ with his Spirit will come down upon them and accompany them as they take his Word and witness ‘to the ends of the earth’.
Just before Jesus departs, the disciples voice an understandable concern: ‘Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ Here we seem to have the last flicker of the hope that Jesus would be a Messiah along the lines of conventional messianic expectation. Also present is a strong sense of ‘unfinished business’. Jesus may be the Messiah, but neither now nor in the foreseeable future do the times and conditions look particularly ‘messianic’. Same old world, same old patterns of violence, suffering and death.
Jesus does not give a direct answer to the disciples’ query. The time of the Kingdom’s full arrival and the completion of the messianic program remains shrouded in the mystery of God. What the disciples must understand is that, empowered by the Spirit, they are to become instruments of its realisation in the new era—that of the Church—that lies ahead. Through their hands and feet and mouth Jesus will continue his messianic work until the end of time. The conflict he faced will be their conflict too (something the Acts of the Apostles will abundantly demonstrate). But in all their trials and labours he will be with them, inspiring and guiding their work from heaven through the Spirit.
Much the same idea is communicated by the passage from Ephesians that forms today’s Second Reading, Eph 1:17-23. It portrays the raising of Christ from the dead and his enthronement at God’s right hand as one continuous exercise of divine power, involving a triumph over all powers hostile to God and God’s plan for human beings and the cosmos as a whole. Christ has been placed ‘above’ all these powers not simply in a physical sense but in way that involves their subjugation.
The text speaks as though this is something already achieved (see also Phil 2:9-11). But, of course, as we noted above in connection with First Reading, the forces hostile to God and to true humanity have by no means been fully overcome; the ‘messianic program’ has yet to run its course. Putting it all in the past as though already achieved is simply the text’s way of projecting an act of hope. The hostile forces may still be around, but the Paschal victory of Jesus has dealt them a fatal blow.
Preachers have to ask how themselves how to identify and name today the malign, transpersonal spiritual forces over which Paul saw Christ triumphant. The Ascension is not simply something that happened to Jesus—his departure, physically, from this world. It is the feast that celebrates the hope that evil and all that makes for dehumanisation and death in our world will not have the last word.
I have left little space to comment upon the Gospel, taken from the final scene in Matthew (28:16-20), where the risen Lord sends out his disciples on mission to the nations of the world. Through baptism they are to draw those who respond in faith into the communion of love that is the Triune God. They are to instruct them in all the ways in which they themselves have received instruction from Jesus as set out in the gospel. Unlike Luke, Matthew does not portray Jesus departing from the earth. He who at his birth was named ‘Emmanuel’—‘God is with us’ (1:23)—will remain ‘Emmanuel’ for his missionary Church till the end of time.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media.
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