The Ascension of the Lord
At times, we forget that Jesus’ act of “going to the Father,” the Ascension, is a totally separate act from his Resurrection. Even the Gospel writers seem to have failed to realize it; Matthew doesn’t mention the Ascension at all (and in Matthew 27:53 he the only mentions the Resurrection in passing). John only hints at it (John 14:23-29) which we heard last week for the 6th Sunday of Easter. Mark mentions it very briefly, “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 (Mark 16:19). Of all the Gospel stories of the Ascension, Luke’s account is the most detailed. But it is in his Acts of the Apostles, that Luke gives us the fullest story of the Ascension, and that is why it is the First Reading every year on the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (Acts 1:1-11).
“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.”
It is in Acts that we are told that Jesus remains with the disciples for forty days after his Resurrection, that he is lifted up on a cloud, that he is taken into heaven and that he will return to us. So what does all this mean to us today?
Firstly, Jesus remained with the disciples for forty days. Biblically, forty is a time of testing. The rain fell on Noah for forty days and nights, Moses stayed on Sinai for forty days and nights, the Israelites wandered the desert for forty years and the Blessed Virgin Mary carried Jesus for 40 weeks in her womb. All of these periods were a time testing and purification for those involved; a transition to a new way of life in service of the Lord.
Secondly, Jesus was lifted up into heaven on a cloud. In the Bible, no one but God appears in a cloud; not angels or man. The cloud is a symbol of heaven and a symbol of the divinity of Jesus. And Jesus is taken up bodily into heaven! As the Creed tells us, he ascends into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. This seat at the “right hand of the Father” is a position of power. Thirdly, the disciples are told by angels that Jesus will return in the same way he left: on the cloud. When Jesus enters into heaven to be seated next to his Father, he is proclaiming his kingship. But by going up to return, he is entering his Father’s house as the Bridegroom. Once he has prepared a place for his Bride (the Church) he will come again to take her (us) to his father’s house (heaven). In last week’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “I am going away and I will come back to you. If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father.” (John 14:28) The disciples and all of humanity should rejoice, because Jesus is the Bridegroom and only he can prepare a place for us in his Father’s house.
Finally, the angels tell the disciples to stop looking to the sky for Jesus. That is because, although Jesus has left us for a time, we are not to keep looking for him to return; “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.” We are to continue the work of Jesus during our time on earth. We are to follow his commandments. To love God and to love one another as Jesus loves us.
That is why the Gospel readings for the Ascension for all three years is the account of Jesus’ great commission to the Apostles. And although he has left us for a little while, he has sent the Spirit and we are not alone. AND, HE WILL COME AGAIN! ALLELUIA!