In the Diocese of Steubenville, as well as in most of the USA, Ascension Day is observed this Sunday. I wish the traditional observance on Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter was retained, but “it is what it is.”
Therefore, this weekend we will look at the powerful readings for Ascension Day.
This is an unusual Lord’s Day, in which the “action” of the Feast Day actually takes place in the First Reading. We typically think of all the narratives of Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospels, overlooking that Acts records at least two important narratives about the activity of the Resurrected Lord (Acts 1:1-11; also 9:1-8).
In the first book, Theophilus,
I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught
until the day he was taken up,
after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit
to the apostles whom he had chosen.
He presented himself alive to them
by many proofs after he had suffered,
appearing to them during forty days
and speaking about the kingdom of God.
While meeting with the them,
he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem,
but to wait for “the promise of the Father
about which you have heard me speak;
for John baptized with water,
but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
When they had gathered together they asked him,
“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons
that the Father has established by his own authority.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”
When he had said this, as they were looking on,
he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.
While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going,
suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.
They said, “Men of Galilee,
why are you standing there looking at the sky?
This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven
will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
Like most English translations, the one used in Mass does not adequately translate the Greek word sunalizomenos in verse 4. Above it is rendered “while meeting with them,” but literally it is “while taking salt with them,” which is a Greek idiom meaning “sharing a meal.” This is the usual meaning of sunalizomenos; the only justification I have seen in the lexicons (e.g. BAGD) for rendering it “spending time with” rather than “eating with” is that “eating with” supposedly doesn’t make sense in the context of Acts 1:4. On the contrary, I suggest it makes a lot of sense, and is in fact theologically significant in light of Luke 22:16,18, which seem to suggest that Jesus will not eat or drink again until the Kingdom comes. The fact that he is eating and drinking with them here, is an indication of the arrival of the Kingdom (see also Acts 10:41).
The disciples ask, “Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?” Jesus’ response is sometimes taken as a rebuff of the apostles, or a ducking of their question, implying perhaps that what they ask for will only take place in the eschaton. However, as Scott Hahn has pointed out, it is possible to take the Lord’s response as answering not when but how. It is the witness (martyria) of the Apostles from “Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, to the ends of the earth” (i.e. the Gentiles)—concentric circles of the ancient Kingdom of David (David’s city, tribe, nation, and vassals, respectively)—that will bring about the new Israel, the Kingdom of God, which is manifest visibly in the world as the Church.
In much of American Christianity, there is the view that we are to expect Jesus to come back and reign over a Jewish kingdom in Israel in the end times—even perhaps to rebuild the stone Temple and restore animal sacrifice. For this reason, some American Christians treat the modern State of Israel as a quasi-sacred entity that deserves our carte blanche political support.
The Catholic tradition has not and does not endorse this view, and it would seem to represent a retrograde action in salvation history. Why would we want to return to a Temple of stone when we have the Temple of Christ’s body, which has now transformed our bodies into his Temple? Have we not learned the lesson that God does not dwell in Temples made by human hands? Mutatis mutandis, the same points would apply to a political kingdom the size of New Jersey in the Near East. How would that satisfy, now that the Spirit has been poured into our hearts and reigns in us throughout the world, now that we who are made meek in the Spirit have inherited the earth? (Matt 5:5)
Moreover, people fail to realize that the Church is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth. It is clear that the Church is the Kingdom of Christ, since the living Christ is King of the Church, and the Church is administered by the royal steward, the successor of Peter (cf. Matt 16:18-19, Isaiah 22:22), and the “twelve officers over the kingdom” (cf. 1 Kings 4:7; Matt 10:1,5-6; Matt 19:28), now become more numerous among their successors. Since Christ is God, his kingdom is the kingdom of God. Since Christ is the Son of David, his kingdom is the kingdom of David. What else could it mean that “Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33)? How then is Christ to come again to set up a kingdom from Jerusalem, when he has already established his kingdom and it is spread over all the earth?
It is often said that Acts is the story of the Church, which is not wrong. But from beginning (see Acts 1:4!) to the end (see Acts 28:31!) Acts is about the kingdom, of which the visible Church is the earthly manifestation. Acts begins with Jesus preaching the kingdom in Israel, and ends with Paul preaching it in Rome.
The Responsorial Psalm is the powerful Psalm 47, whose original historical context must have been a dramatic liturgical procession, perhaps the bringing of the Ark into the sanctuary after battle, or perhaps even an enthronement festival in which the ascension of the Son of David to his throne was seen as mystical representation of the enthronement of YHWH in heaven. (If so, it would not be the only place in the psalms where the Son of David is “confused” with God himself—see Psalm 45:6 [Hebrew])
God mounts his throne amid shouts of joy;
the LORD, amid trumpet blasts.
Sing praise to God, sing praise;
sing praise to our king, sing praise.
The Church sees this Psalm fulfilled, of course, in the Ascension of the Christ and his session “at the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33).
The Second Reading (Eph 1:17-23) continues to focus on the royal authority given to Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David and Son of God:
Brothers and sisters:
May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,
give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation
resulting in knowledge of him.
May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,
that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call,
what are the riches of glory
in his inheritance among the holy ones,
and what is the surpassing greatness of his power
for us who believe,
in accord with the exercise of his great might,
which he worked in Christ,
raising him from the dead
and seating him at his right hand in the heavens,
far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion,
and every name that is named
not only in this age but also in the one to come.
And he put all things beneath his feet
and gave him as head over all things to the church,
which is his body,
the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.
The “principalities, authorities, powers, and dominions” and “names that are named” referred to above indicate spiritual powers, i.e. angels and demons. Christ has been placed over the entire spiritual hierarchy. St. Paul says, “he put everything under his feet,” applying Psalm 8:6 to Jesus and providing one of the earliest witnesses to the messianic reading of this important Psalm. It is Christ’s session above the spiritual hierarchy that gives the co-seated Church (Eph 2:6) power over the demonic realm, exercised quite dramatically in the rite of exorcism but no less powerfully in the Sacraments, especially (in my view) the Sacrament of Confession, which has great power for spiritual deliverance (discussed here). Christians are not meant to be pawns of the devil; the devil cannot “make me do it.” We are to be victorious by wielding the sword of the Spirit of the Risen One.
The Gospel is the famous “Great Commission” (Matt 28:16-20), often jokingly referred to as the “Great Omission”, in reference to our frequent failures as believers in spreading the Gospel. Actually, although great human failures have marked the spread of the Church, it still is to be found present and active on every continent, in every nation. One third of human beings identify as Christians, one sixth as Catholics. Even from a merely natural perspective of cultural history, the Church is a remarkable and singular phenomenon.
The eleven disciples went to Galilee,
to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.
When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.
Then Jesus approached and said to them,
“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Jesus words in the Great Commission (“All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me …”) reflect the theology of Psalm 2, the Royal Coronation Hymn of the Son of David (“Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage, the ends of the earth your possession …”), which is perhaps the most important psalm to the theology of the New Testament.
In any case, let us note that the Commission is not simply to “preach me as Lord and personal Savior,” as admirable as that may be, but it is “to make disciples”—which is a long-term process of formation involving self-denial (it took Jesus three years with the twelve)—and “to baptize,” a reference to the sacramental ministry of the Church. Finally, the Commission is “to teach them to observe all that I have commanded you,” which seems to refer to a considerably large catechetical undertaking, instructing all the nations in the halakha (interpreted Divine Law) of the Messiah, the Son of David. In other words, the Great Commission is not satisfied by knocking on doors and passing out tracts—as good as those things may be. It is a description of the entire mission and action of the Church—evangelistic, sacramental, catechetical.
Let us consider this catechetical mission a little more closely. The words of the Gospel do not say “teaching them all that I have commanded you,” but rather “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” It’s like the difference between a course in hydrodyamics and a course in swimming. You ought not to learn simply the theory of the buoyancy of bodies in water, but how to swim! We have sadly neglected this. With good intentions, we have taught many people about Christianity, but not how to live the Christian life. Something Cardinal Pell once said strikes me as relevant. He observed that “very few pilgrims to the Vatican seem to have more than two children.” That’s very interesting, since the use of natural methods for child spacing usually result in a family size of around six to ten. So even among Catholics devout enough to want to make a pilgrimage to the Vatican, it’s uncommon to see a lived witness to the Church’s teaching on openness to life. And openness to life, contrary to the way it may seem to many, is not really a side-issue or a tangential teaching, but at the deepest level it is intimately tied up with our understanding of divine love, the Trinity, marriage, the family, and reality in general. So this is one area in which we are not doing a good job of teaching the disciples of Christ “to observe all that I have commanded you.” And of course there are many other examples as well.
It’s not that catechetical instruction should be stripped of intellectual content, but all of us need to be aware that, just as Christ became incarnate, so also we must incarnate the teaching of Christ—act on it, live it out. And until we teach others not simply to know it but to live it, we haven’t succeeded in manifesting the Kingdom of Christ on earth.
Would you like to go and see the site from which Jesus ascended to heaven? I’m going to visit it in August and you’re welcome to come along! See the details for my August 2020 pilgrimage to the Holy Land with the amazing Fr. Mark Bentz of the Archdiocese of Portland: www.JohnBergsma.com/pilgrimage