MAY 10TH, 2018: ASCENSION OF JESUS
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 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."
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.
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.
It’s far easier simply to say, “Jesus has risen!” than to reflect on the implications of his resurrection. The fact we have four – sometimes contradictory - gospel narratives of the discovery of his empty tomb prove that point. Because of our evangelists’ Semitic both/and thought process, each offers us a different dimension and different consequences of that event. Our problem is that we’ve squeezed these diverse gospel narratives into chronological liturgical readings. That means, because of our Greek either/or thought process, we’ve “canonized” one of these theologies and left the others behind. We, for instance, overlook that fact there’s no definitive ascension of Jesus in either Mark, Matthew, or John. Since we’ve inserted Luke’s ascension theology into our liturgical year, we not only presume that’s all there is, we rarely notice the implications Luke’s trying to convey in expressing his theology in his unique way.
Among other things, Luke is convinced, in the absence of the historical Jesus, that the Holy Spirit is the force guiding the Christian community. His Jesus couldn’t be clearer. Just before he ascends he tells his disciples to expect Pentecost. “In a few days,” he says, “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” In other words, “The Spirit will shortly take my place.”
We who faithfully depend on the institutional church to tell us what God wants us to do, have little space for that Spirit in our religious experiences. Growing up Catholic, about the only time we were expected to pray to the Holy Spirit was immediately before we took our school exams. Hopefully the Spirit would remind us what our teachers had taught on various subjects, not enlighten us on what the risen Jesus was telling us to do in our daily lives.
The Pauline disciple who wrote the letter to the Ephesians poetically speaks about the risen Jesus “seated at (God’s) right hand in the heavens.” Yet he also reminds his readers about the “Spirit of wisdom and revelation” which we received when we first experienced God in our lives. No way we can be other Christs without constantly falling back on that Spirit, whether the risen Jesus is relaxing triumphant in heaven or actively working among us here on earth.
It’s important to know that today’s gospel pericope was not originally part of Mark’s gospel. Even the bishops at the Council of Trent (1545) agreed someone had tacked verses 9-20 onto Mark’s gospel long after the evangelist completed it. (By the way, there are Marcan manuscripts with at least two other non-original endings. Most probably the gospel simply ended with verse 8, as disturbing as that is.)
Since Jesus’ followers didn’t seem to have regarded the Christian Scriptures as divinely inspired until the latter part of the third century, people could “mess around” with those writings and not worry about divine retribution. Mark’s original abrupt ending to his gospel – the risen Jesus is simply “out there somewhere” - seems to have provided a made to order invitation to those who had problems with the different theologies in other writings. Someone eventually strung those passages together in a way that “made sense;” one that fit their either/or Greek mentality.
It doesn’t do much harm to read today’s addition (except for those churches whose worship services revolve around handling poisonous snakes.) But these verses should be a reminder that our faith originally wasn’t a matter of either/or. If we celebrate today’s feast knowing Jesus’ ascension was one among several ways to surface the implications of Jesus’ resurrection, we’re correctly looking at this celebration from a biblical point of view. If, on the other hand, we think our liturgical chronology accurately conveys historical chronology, we’d best sign up for a course in Scripture 101 as soon as possible.