Sunday, May 24, 2020
The Ascension of the Lord
Liturgical Color: White
First reading: Acts 1:1–11
Psalm: Psalm 47:2–3, 6–7, 8–9
Second reading: Ephesians 1:17–23
Gospel: Matthew 28:16–20
Jesus, now glorified, prepares his disciples to inaugurate the Church. The disciples, even at this point, do not yet understand that his Kingdom is not an earthly one (John 18:36). Yet his mystical body, the Church, is the interface between this world and Christ’s spiritual Kingdom (see Matthew 6:10). In other words, Christ’s ascension is not merely “two feet disappearing into a cloud” (Universalis), but the transition of Christ’s resurrected and immortal body from an individual and personal one to a community of believers spiritually united to him through the action of the Holy Spirit, whom they will receive in a few days’ time.
The ascension… is the last event, the last mystery of our Lord’s life on earth — and also it concerns the origins of the Church. The ascension scene takes place, so to speak, between heaven and earth. “Why did a cloud take him out of the Apostles’ sight?” St. John Chrysostom asks. “The cloud was a sure sign that Jesus had already entered heaven; it was not a whirlwind or a chariot of fire, as in the case of the prophet Elijah (cf. 2 Kings 2:11), but a cloud, which was a symbol of heaven itself” (Hom. on Acts, 2).
Our Lord’s ascension is one of the actions by which Jesus redeems us from sin and gives us the new life of grace. It is a redemptive mystery. “What we have already taught of the mystery of his death and resurrection the faithful should deem not less true of his ascension. For although we owe our redemption and salvation to the passion of Christ, whose merits opened heaven to the just, yet his ascension is not only proposed to us as a model, which teaches us to look on high and ascend in spirit into heaven, but it also imparts to us a divine virtue which enables us to accomplish what it teaches” (St. Pius V Catechism, 1, 7, 9).
Along with the other mysteries of his life, death and resurrection, Christ’s ascension saves us. “Today we are not only made possessors of paradise,” St. Leo says, “but we have ascended with Christ, mystically but really, into the highest heaven, and through Christ we have obtained a more ineffable grace than that which we lost through the devil’s envy” (First homily on the ascension). (Navarre Bible Commentary)
Luke emphasizes that Jesus presented himself alive to them by many proofs. According to Luke’s Gospel, the risen Jesus not only appeared to the apostles but also let them touch him and ate some fish before them so they could be assured he was truly risen and not a ghost or spiritual apparition (Luke 24:36–43). Those who encountered the risen Lord did not need arguments to be fully convinced that he is alive. Acts explicitly notes that the risen Jesus showed himself only to his followers, who then had to witness to others about his resurrection (Acts 13:30–31). He will show himself to all people only at his return for judgment at the end of the world (Luke 21:26–27). Thus, although Jesus’ appearances were incontestable proofs for the apostles who saw him, later Christians depend by faith on the testimony of those apostolic witnesses that the Jesus who “suffered, died, and was buried” (Nicene Creed) is now truly risen and alive. (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture)
We today have a personal stake in awaiting the Holy Spirit, because through him we receive the power and the wisdom to do the Lord’s will. Without that supernatural power and wisdom, we will fail to accomplish the mission God has given the Church.
The First Reading speaks of the inauguration of the Church in power and wisdom, through the action of the Holy Spirit. In the Second Reading, we see this vision expanded, as St. Paul discusses the work of the Holy Spirit in building the Church according to the Father’s plan.
The essence of Paul’s prayer here [in this passage] is for God to pour out his Holy Spirit on them [his readers, and by implication, the entire Church] so that they would come to know God more deeply and understand what he has given them through Jesus Christ. Although some scholars interpret the spirit of wisdom and revelation as qualities of the readers’ human spirit, the fact that the Old Testament refers to the Spirit of God as “a spirit of wisdom” (Isaiah 11:2; see Exodus 31:3; 35:31) and that the other two persons of the Trinity are mentioned here suggests that Paul is referring to the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, in Ephesians 3:4–5 Paul identifies the Spirit as the means by which God revealed the “mystery of Christ” to the apostles and prophets. In this context, Paul prays that the Holy Spirit will likewise impart an understanding of God and his plan to the members of the church. The primary goal of this gift of the Spirit is knowledge of him, that is, that Paul’s readers know God better. In 1 Corinthians 2:9–12, Paul teaches that it is the Spirit of God who enables us to know God. This request could seem strange, since the Ephesians already have the Spirit and already know God [through the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation]. But there is always more of the Spirit to receive and more knowledge of God to acquire. Eternal life involves drinking ever more deeply of the divine Spirit (Revelations 22:1, 17) and knowing God as fully as we are known (Isaiah 11:9; 1 Corinthians 13:12). (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture)
The predominant image of this passage is that of Christ’s power and authority, provided to him by the Father through the Holy Spirit. This power is most evident in his resurrection and ascension, as Paul further describes in the remainder of the passage.
Paul often makes his most important theological points by referring to the paschal mystery. To demonstrate the power that is available for Christians to be victorious in the face of the world’s opposition, Paul recalls the most decisive act of power in history: the power that resurrected the human body of Jesus that lay lifeless in the tomb and that re-created his body for eternal life. This same power raised someone with the same human nature as our own to a position of authority far above every human and angelic power in the universe. This is what God did for Jesus. Paul thus includes the ascension of Christ in this more extensive explanation of the resurrection: Jesus was not only raised from death to life, he was also raised to the heights of heaven. The phrase seating him at his right hand in the heavens is a metaphorical way of saying that Jesus received sovereign power from God. Here Paul alludes to Psalm 110, a messianic psalm often quoted in the New Testament: “The LORD says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, / till I make your enemies your footstool’” (Psalm 110:1 RSV). Since the ascension, someone with our human nature, Jesus of Nazareth, sits on the throne of God wielding divine authority (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 648, 659, 668). (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture)
Jesus had been raised from the dead. The disciples were dumbfounded and somewhat doubtful, even as he encouraged them to believe what they were witnessing. Now he is about to ascend into glory, to the Father. On the mountain, the disciples worship him as the Pantocrator (“ruler of all”), but they still harbor some doubt. But this is not a time for further instruction and encouragement. That time will arrive when the Holy Spirit comes to provide them power and wisdom and to activate the authority of the Church, which will be an extension of Christ’s incarnation in the world. In this way, Jesus will fulfill his word: “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
[In his ascension] the Son of Man is escorted into the presence of God, and “power” is “given” to him so that “all nations” might serve him as their king. In Matthew’s final scene, Jesus applies to himself the same expressions used in the Septuagint translation of Daniel. This means that Jesus, as a man, is now invested with God’s authority over heaven and earth. He never ceased to be omnipotent in his divinity, of course, but now he exercises his lordship over the universe through his risen humanity (see Ephesians 1:20–21; Philippians 2:9). (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture)