The Scriptures which describe the event which we call the Ascension are slightly troublesome for those who read them in a very literal sense. Of the evangelists, only two record the actual event, and they disagree about the location of the event. Matthew places the event in Galilee on a mountaintop. Luke tells us that Jesus led the disciples outside of Jerusalem where he then ascended out of their sight. Luke records the event twice, once in the Gospel and again in the Acts of the Apostles. These two accounts disagree on when the event took place with the Gospel placing it on the evening of the Resurrection and Acts speaking of a period of forty days in which Jesus appeared to the disciples before returning to the Father. These seeming contradictions actually point us toward the real importance of this celebration; i.e. we are not celebrating the anniversary of an historical event, but rather we are invited to reflect on the Ascension as one more aspect of the Paschal mystery.
The Paschal mystery is composed of several events; namely, the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus followed by the gift of the Spirit. The Gospels actually are fairly unanimous that these events took place over a fairly short period of time, anywhere from three to four days. Jesus was crucified and died after celebrating the Last Supper with his disciples, rose from the dead three days later, and ascended to the Father after breathing upon the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit. The issues of where and when this all took place when we compare the various texts reveal that the evangelists are using various constructs to show that the Paschal mystery marks the end of Jesus ministry among us and the beginning of the Church.
Each of the descriptions of the event of the Ascension is filled with symbolic references that help us to understand what this event means for us.
Moses spent forty days on Mt. Sinai (or Horeb) being instructed by God in the demands of the covenant relationship that was struck after the exodus. Jesus spends forty days instructing the apostles in the demands of the new covenant. As people of that covenant, we have been invited for the past few weeks to reflect on how those demands impinge on our faith. Each Sunday during this season, we have begun our Eucharist by recalling our baptism, the day on which we entered this covenant relationship with God.
The covenant relationship began on a mountain. According to the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus ascends from a mountaintop in Galilee, perhaps the same mountain where he began his preaching ministry with the Sermon on the Mount. He was transfigured on a mountain. He was also crucified on Mt. Calvary. The mountains or hills of Israel were regarded as the dwelling place of God. Jesus went to the mountains often to pray. During this season, we have been reminded of the importance of prayer in our lives.
Jesus ascends on a cloud. Mount Sinai was enveloped in a cloud when God met Moses and ratified the covenant by handing on the commandments. The Holy of Holies was filled with God's presence in the form of a cloud when the Ark of the Covenant was enthroned in the Temple. The cloud is a reminder that we are in the presence of God in his Temple, that God dwells here and in the Temple of our hearts. During this season, we have been drawn to the cloud of God’s glory through prayer and fasting.
Ancient religions believed that the entrance to heaven was directly above their earthly Temple. St. Luke depicts Jesus ascending just outside of Jerusalem, the site of the Temple. Before he ascends, Jesus reminds the disciples that they are to stay in the city, Jerusalem, thereby fulfilling the prophecy that said that the Kingdom of God would begin in Jerusalem and extend to the entire world. We have been charged with continuing the process of extending the love of God to the world in which we live.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the women not to touch him after the resurrection because he has not yet ascended to the Father. However, he invites Thomas to touch his hands, his feet and his side when he appears once again in the upper room. We too are invited to touch the wounded Jesus in the poor and those who are persecuted and broken because of their faith. We are reminded that this is our response to the love that God has shown us through the Paschal Mystery.
All of these details point to the fact that the evangelists are telling us that the Ascension is a celebration of God's response to Jesus' obedience. That same obedience to God’s will is expected of us. If we wish to go where He has gone before us, then we must make every effort to obey the commandments, to place God’s will ahead of ours. Because of His obedience, Jesus is enthroned at the right hand of God. We hope to live with God, but we must be obedient to God’s will if that hope is to be realized.
Today’s excerpt from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul invokes a blessing upon those who have placed their faith in Jesus and who have accepted the commission to go forth into the world. He calls down a spirit of wisdom and understanding which will open our eyes to the mystery of Christ’s resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God. Those who see with the eyes of faith are able to plumb the depths of these mysteries and recognize that God’s power at work in the world and in us. It is God’s power that will bring about the conversion of the world. It is God’s power which will accomplish the plan. As we celebrate this solemnity, we are reminded that we are also called upon to do great things; however, that will only happen if we allow God to use us, if we lay aside our own wills and accept God’s will in our lives. Rather than clinging to that unholy Trinity of me, myself and I, we are called to embrace God’s will and, like Jesus, to be obedient.
As we receive the Eucharist today, let us allow Jesus to enter our hearts and take possession of our lives in the hope that we, like him, will one day ascend to the right hand of God.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator