Year C: The Ascension of the Lord
Luke 24: 46-53
And he said to them “Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And [behold] I am sending the promise of my Father* upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them [out] as far as Bethany, raised his hands, and blessed them. As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven. They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God.
- In your own words, what do you think we are celebrating on the feast of the ascension?
- Do you believe your baptism has commissioned you to do anything? What are you commissioned to do?
- How do you personally carry on the mission of Jesus Christ?
- If you think of discipleship as following Jesus in the way you live your faith, what are your primary discipleship activities at this stage of your journey?
Luke 24: 46-53
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD
In today’s readings we have two accounts of the ascension by the same author, one from Luke’s Gospel and one from the Acts of the Apostles, the second volume of Luke’s two-part work. Luke’s two accounts differ in detail. By noting both the similarities and the differences in the two accounts, we will be able to discern what Luke is teaching by the way in which he tells the story.
Today’s Gospel begins in the middle of an appearance story. Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples, who initially fail to recognize him. Jesus shows them his wounds, invites them to touch him, and eats with them. Next, Jesus uses the law, the prophets, and the psalms to show the disciples that, even though he is the crucified one, he is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel. It is at this point that our Lectionary reading joins the story.
Today’s reading begins with the commissioning of the disciples. The risen Christ tells the disciples that they are witnesses to the fact that “it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sin, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Here we see Luke’s emphasis on forgiveness and universality. All nations are to hear the good news. We know from reading the Acts of the Apostles that the disciples did not understand that all nations were now invited into covenant love until sometime later (see Acts 10).
Jesus then tells the apostles to remain in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on high. After Jesus parts from them, that is, after Jesus ascends into heaven, the disciples return to Jerusalem to await the coming of the Spirit. While they waited, “they were continually in the temple praising God.”
The temple is where Luke began his story with Zechariah awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promises. Jerusalem is central to the organization of both Luke and Acts. That is why Luke pictures the commissioning, along with the ascension, in Jerusalem and its environs rather than in Galilee (see Matt 28:16). From Jerusalem the good news of Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of God’s promises, will be proclaimed to the whole world.
Leaving and Staying
Many years ago, when the feast of the Ascension was still Ascension Thursday, a teenager asked, “After Mass, could we get together in the parking lot with helium balloons, let them go, and sing, ‘Up, Up, and Away, in my beautiful balloon”? I was against it. But when I tried to explain my “no,” I was less than convincing. My mind was struggling with the relationship of symbolism and spiritual truth; and when the struggling mind speaks, it is usually the listeners who struggle.
Spiritual truths are often realized in an intuitive, holistic way. However, they are expressed in images taken from other dimensions, especially from the cosmic and social dimensions. Therefore, the transcendence of God, which is intuitively realized, is expressed in the cosmic imagery of the sky, which is called heaven. This basic cosmic positioning then borrows from the social realm the idea of a king with his court. The one who sits at the right hand of the king is closest to the king. From this special place of honor, he advises the king and oversees the affairs of the kingdom. Therefore, the risen Jesus ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father, overseeing his church and their adventures in the world.
But what does this mean when the understanding of the cosmic and social realms changes? If the language of “heaven and kingly courts” becomes antiquated and/or downright wrong, is the spiritual truth it expresses lost? Do we keep the traditional language and join a conspiracy of silence that mutually agrees not to ask what it means? Do we attempt a facile and usually banal translation into contemporary language? Does the risen Jesus go “out into space” instead of “up into heaven”? Is his new position of importance and power imaged as Vice President to the President (God) or CEO to the Board Chair (God)? I don’t think so. A self-conscious use of imagery can be fun, but it does not have immediate intellectual and affective impact.
The ascension of Jesus draws on another social situation. The death of an individual, especially an important one, entails a commissioning of those left behind. Their inheritance is to continue the work of the one who began it but who is no longer present to continue it. However, when this common social situation is applied to Jesus, it is changed in two significant ways. First, Jesus does not have a death-bed commissioning. The risen Lord sends his disciples out as an act of finishing his earthly work before ascending to the Father. Second, he is leaving and he is not leaving. He is not going to be with them in the way he was with them during his life or in his risen form. But he is going to be with them.
Matthew simply states this ongoing presence. “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” But the addition of “remember” connotes that this “always” presence of the risen Lord may be easy to forget. Therefore, an intentional act of remembering has to be put in place. Mark has Jesus at the right hand of the Father in heaven, but he is still present with his disciples. “The Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.” The disciples could preach and teach, but when the heavy lifting of signs (miracles) was needed, the Lord had to be there. Therefore, he could be present in heaven and on earth— somehow. Luke has a cleaner separation with the promise of a mediated presence. The disciples are to wait until they have been clothed with “power from on high.” This is the sending of the Spirit who will continue Jesus’ presence among his disciples. His risen form is gone, but his and the Father’s Spirit is present, doing among the disciples essentially the same work that Jesus did.
Therefore, the ascension signifies a change in how Jesus is present to his disciples. This is spelled out in some detail in the Gospel of John. (See this volume, “Easter Sunday: The Resurrection of the Lord at the Mass of Easter Day”) Mary Magdalene, consumed with grief, searches for the body of Jesus in his pre-death form. She cannot find this form, but a new form of Jesus, a form that is the result of his ascending to the Father, encounters her and calls her by name. This form of Jesus, which she calls Teacher because he is teaching her his new way of spiritual presence, tells her to “go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God'” (John 20:17) It is the ascension that connects Jesus, his Father, and the disciples. Therefore, although to literal eyes the ascension may look like losing Jesus to the sky, it is really a feast of the continuing communion of Jesus and the disciples, even though the forms of that communion have changed.
And that is why I did not think watching helium balloons rise and disappear while singing, ”Up, Up, and Away, in my beautiful balloon” was a good idea.
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle C, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2006 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.