Scripture and the Liturgy

Ascension Day!

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 reality 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 (Acts 7:48)?  Mutatis mutandis, the same points would apply to a political kingdom the size of New Jersey in the Near East.  How would a little political kingdom in the Near East satisfy us, 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)

It is often said that Acts is the story of the Church, which is not wrong.  But from beginning (Acts 1:4) to the end (Acts 28:31) Acts is about the kingdom, of which the visible Church is the earthly manifestation.

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 Mark’s version of 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 phenomena.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Go into the whole world
and proclaim the gospel to every creature.
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved;
whoever does not believe will be condemned.
These signs will accompany those who believe:
in my name they will drive out demons,
they will speak new languages.
They will pick up serpents with their hands,
and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.
They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them,
was taken up into heaven
and took his seat at the right hand of God.
But they went forth and preached everywhere,
while the Lord worked with them
and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.

Jesus authoritative command to go into all the world to proclaim his reign reflects 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. 

The command to “proclaim the good news to every creature” is an interesting way to phrase the Great Commission.  Are we then to preach to the whales and the pine trees?  Probably not, but by saying “every creature” rather than just “every human being,” Mark indicates the cosmic effects of the Gospel: it is a message that has meaning not just for humanity, but even nature itself.  Pope Francis tried to explore this concept in his encyclical Laudato Si.  It is interesting also to observe that at it’s best, the Church’s mission has also benefited nature.  Historians point out, for example, that in antiquity much of Europe uninhabitable swamp land, unsuitable for farming, but it was largely the spread of Christian monasticism—with monks draining the swamps and preparing field for agriculture—that “tamed” the landscape and made Europe into a “garden.”  Likewise, atheistic regimes, for all their anti-Christian rhetoric, have often done serious abuse to the environment, as was sadly witnessed in the aftermath of the fall of the iron curtain.

But the cosmic implications of the Gospel should not overshadow the fact that the good news is first of all addressed to all human beings, and that faith and the sacraments are necessary for salvation.  We read that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” which is a pleasing synopsis of the relationship between faith and the sacraments.  Both are necessary; without the sacraments faith runs the danger of being merely personal, subjective, and individualistic, and fails to incorporate us into the body of Christ.  On the other hand, the sacraments without faith devolve into empty externalism and ritualism, and fail to bear fruit of holiness in the life of the individual. 

Mark mentions the many signs that will accompany the preaching of the Gospel: (a) exorcisms, still being performed regularly to this day, (b) the acquisition of new languages, which has been a hallmark of Christian missionary work through the ages—for so many cultures, the first written text in their own language was the Bible, translated by Christian missionaries; (c) “pick up serpents with their hands”, which Paul did literally in Acts 28:3-6, but which we may also take as a reference to authority over evil spirits, who are sometimes associated or symbolized by serpents in the Bible; (d) “if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them,” just as Paul withstood the poison of the viper in Acts 28:3-6, but which we may also interpret as the ability to withstand false teaching, which is likened to poison in the Scriptures (Ps 140:3; James 3:8); (e) healing the sick, which Paul performs literally also in Acts 28:7-10, which still occurs in evangelism today, and which has expanded into the Catholic health care network, the world’s largest.

But they went forth and preached everywhere,
while the Lord worked with them
and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.

This could, and should, be a summary statement of the whole history of Christianity.  But is it true in our day?  In Robert Cardinal Sarah’s moving biography, God or Nothing, he writes about the French missionary priests of the Holy Ghost order who arrived in his extremely remote African village just after the end of World War II, and preached and baptized hundreds and thousands in that region of Ghana, sometimes at the cost of their lives, as many succumbed to malaria and the other dangers of that remote environment.  But their faith was so strong it made an indelible mark on the African children they catechized, and firmly planted the Church in that region.  Does this faith still live among us?  Do we still have young men and women willing to risk even their lives to preach Jesus Christ to every creature?  At this Ascension Mass, let’s pray that Jesus Christ seated at the right hand of the Father would bless us with a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, to enflame our hearts with the faith of the first apostles!

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