Commentary on the Readings
Ascension of the Lord – Year B – May 13, 2018
A Different Way of Being Near
With the coming of Jesus in the glory of the Father, has anything on earth changed?
Outwardly, nothing. The lives of the people continued to be what it was before: to sow, reap, trade, build homes, travel, cry and party, as usual. Even the apostles did not receive any reduction on dramas and anxieties experienced by other people. However, something incredibly new happened: a new light was projected on the existence of people.
On a foggy day, the sun suddenly appears. The mountains, the sea, the fields, the trees of the forest, the scent of the flowers, the songs of the birds remain the same, but the way of seeing or perceiving them is different.
It also happens to one who is enlightened by faith in Jesus ascended into heaven: he sees the world with new eyes. Everything makes sense, nothing saddens, nothing scares.
In addition to the fatality, the miseries, the errors of persons, the Lord who builds his reign is seen.
An example of this completely new perspective could be the way to consider the years of life. We all know, and maybe we smile, of octogenarians who envy those who have fewer years than them. They are ashamed of their age. Well, they turn their gaze to the past, not to the future. The certainty of the Ascension reverses this perspective. While the years pass, the Christian is satisfied because he sees the days of a definitive encounter with Christ coming soon. He is happy to have lived, does not envy the young ones and looks at them with tenderness.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“The sufferings of this present time are not worth compared to the future glory that will be revealed in us.”
On the Mount of Olives, a small octagonal sanctuary was built by the Crusaders. It was later converted into a mosque by the Muslims in 1200. I explained to the pilgrims that this little structure today has a roof, but it was originally uncovered to commemorate the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. A light-hearted person of the group commented: “It had no roof because otherwise, ascending, Jesus would have hit his head.” Someone did not like the irreverent joke, but some others considered it a challenge to deepen the meaning of the text of Acts.
At first glance, the story of the Ascension smoothly flow but, when all particulars are considered, one starts to feel a certain embarrassment. It seems rather unlikely that Jesus acted as an astronaut who detaches himself from the ground, rises to the sky and disappears beyond the clouds. There are also some difficulties to explain inconsistencies.
At the end of his Gospel, Luke—the author of Acts—says that the Risen Lord led his disciples to Bethany. “And as he blessed them, he withdrew and was taken to heaven. They worshiped him and then returned to Jerusalem full of joy” (Lk 24:50-53). Forget the odd remark about the “full of joy” (and who among us is happy when a friend departs?) and the disagreement on the location (Bethany is a little off the beaten path with respect to the Mount of Olives). What surprises is the apparent discrepancy about the date: according to Luke 24, Ascension takes place on the same day of Easter, while in the Acts, it was forty days later (Acts 1:3). It is surprising that the author gives two conflicting information.
If we take for good the second version (the one of the forty days), the question spontaneously arises: What did Jesus do during this time? On Calvary, had he not promised to the thief: Today you will be with me in paradise? Why didn’t he go immediately?
The listed difficulties are not enough to warn us: perhaps Luke’s intention was not to inform us about where, how and when Jesus went up to heaven. Perhaps (indeed, surely) his concern is another: he wants to respond to problems and dissolve doubts that have arisen in his community. He wants to enlighten the Christians of his time on the ineffable mystery of Easter. For this reason, as an artist of the pen, he composes a page of theology using a literary genre and images easily understood by his contemporaries. The first step to do is that of understanding the used language.
At the time of Jesus, the waiting for the kingdom of God is very vivid. Apocalyptic writers announce it as imminent. They expect a flood of purifying fire from heaven, the resurrection of the righteous and the beginning of a new world. Even in the minds of some disciples, an atmosphere of excitement is created. It is fueled by some expressions of Jesus that can easily be misunderstood: “You will not have passed through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Mt 10:23).
With the death of the Master, however, all hopes are dashed: the two of Emmaus say “We had hoped that he would redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21).
The resurrection awakens expectations: the conviction of an immediate return of Christ spreads among the disciples. Some fanatics, based themselves on alleged revelations, begin to even announce the date. The invocation “Marana tha,” Come, Lord! is repeated in all the communities.
The years pass but the Lord does not come. Many begin to be ironic: “What has become of his promised coming? Since our fathers in faith died, everything goes on as it was from the beginning of the world” (2 P 3:4).
Luke writes in this situation of crisis. He realizes that a misunderstanding is at the origin of the bitter disappointment of Christians: the resurrection of Jesus marked the beginning of the kingdom of God but not the end of the story.
The construction of the new world has just begun. It will require a long time and much effort on the part of the disciples.
How to correct the false expectations? Luke introduces a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles on the first page of the book of the Acts.
Let us consider the question that they propose: when will the kingdom of God come? (v. 6) It is the same question that, at the end of the first century, all Christians want to direct to the Master. The response of the Risen One was directed to the members of Luke’s community more than to the Twelve: “It is not for you to know the time and the steps the Father has fixed 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, even to the ends of the earth” (vv. 7-8).
The scene of the Ascension follows this dialogue (vv. 9-11).
Jesus and the disciples were seated at table (Acts 1:4) in the house. Why didn’t they greet each other there after supper? What was the need to go to the Mount of Olives? And the other details: the cloud, the eyes turned skyward, the two men in white robes are they chronological records or literary devices?
In the Old Testament, there is a very similar story to ours. It is the “snatching” of Elijah (2 K 2:9-15).
One day, this great prophet Elijah finds himself near the Jordan River with his disciple Elisha. Elisha, on learning that the teacher is going to leave him, dares to ask Elijah two-thirds of his spirit as inheritance. The prophet promises him but only on one condition: if you see me when I am taken from you. Suddenly, a chariot with a mare of fire appeared and, while Elisha looks heavenward, Elijah is snatched in a whirlwind. Since that time, Elisha receives the spirit of the master and is enabled to continue his mission in this world. The Book of Kings will tell the works of Elisha. They are the same that Elijah did.
It is easy to reveal the common elements with the narrative of the Acts. Then the conclusion could not be anything but this: Luke made use of the grand and solemn scenario of Elijah’s snatching to express a reality that could not be verified with the senses nor adequately described with words: the Passover of Jesus, his resurrection and his entry into the glory of the Father.
In the Old Testament, the cloud indicates the presence of God in a certain place (Ex 13:22). Luke uses it to affirm that Jesus, the defeated, the stone which the builders rejected, the one whom the enemies would have wished to remain forever a prisoner of death, was instead welcomed by God and proclaimed the Lord. The two men dressed in white are the same that appear at the tomb on Easter Day (Luke 24:4). The white color represents, according to the biblical symbolism, the world of God. The words put into the mouths of the two men are explanation given by God to the events of Easter: Jesus, the faithful servant, put to death by men, is glorified. Their words are true (being two, they are credible witnesses).
Finally: the gaze turned skyward. As Elisha, the apostles and the Christians of Luke’s time are also contemplating the Master who distances himself. Their gaze indicates the hope of his immediate return, the desire that, after a short interval, he will resume the interrupted work. But the voice from the sky clarifies: he will not bring it to completion but you will. You will do it; you will be qualified to do so because you have spent with him forty days (in the language of Judaism it was the time needed for the preparation of the disciple) and you have received the Spirit.
For the apostles, as for Elisha, the image of the “rapture of the master” means the passage of handover.
Already at the time of Luke, there were Christians who “looked to the sky”, that is, who regarded religion as an escape, not as an incentive to undertake measures to improve the lives of people. God says to them: “Stop looking at the sky. You need to prove the authenticity of your faith on earth. Jesus will come back, yes, but that hope should not be a reason for alienating yourselves from the problems of this world. Happy are those servants whom the master finds wide-awake when he comes” (cf. Lk 12:37).
Did Jesus then ascend into heaven?
Of course, he did. To say that he ascended to heaven is equivalent to saying: he is risen, glorified and entered into the glory of God. His body, it is true, was placed in the tomb, but God had no need of the atoms of his body, to give him that “resurrected body” what Paul calls “spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:35-50).
Forty days after Easter no displacement in space and no “rapture” from the Mount of Olives toward heaven occurred. The Ascension took place in the instant of death, even though the disciples began to understand and to believe only from the “third day.”
The story of Luke is a page of theology, not the report of a columnist. In this page, he wants to tell us that Jesus was the first one to go through the “veil of the temple” that separated the world of people from that of God. He showed how everything that happens on earth: successes, mishaps, injustice, suffering, and even the more absurd facts, as an ignominious death, are not beyond God’s plan.
The Ascension of Jesus is all that. So we should not be surprised that it was greeted with great joy by the apostles (Lk 24:52).
Paul asks God for wisdom for his Christians. This is not human wisdom but the intelligence to understand the mystery of the church. He asks God to enlighten their eyes and hearts so that they may understand how great is the hope to which they were called.
The first reading called on Christians not to neglect the concrete duties of this world. The second completes this thought and urges Christians not to forget that their life is not enclosed within the horizon of this world. It is because, even if engaged in the activities of this life, they are always waiting for Christ’s return to take them permanently with himself.
In the life of every individual, there are decisive stages, delicate moments of transition in which we perceive that the future is at stake. These are moments of crisis, sometimes of distressing uncertainty, of inner confusion and often also of pain, as it happens in every birth.
Even in church history, there have been events that led to turning points, but none has been as decisive as that in which the change of Jesus’ presence occurred. Before Easter, he lived physically in this world and the disciples were led by him step by step. After Easter, he continued to be present, but not so perceptible by the senses. The disciples felt lonely and hesitant. They had the feeling of being in front of a not well-defined mission and certainly beyond their strength.
How to carry on the work of the Master? Was it not presumptuous to deem themselves capable of beginning a new world? It was hard to adjust to the idea that such an undertaking was entrusted to a group of poor fishermen of Galilee.
The decisive moments of life need greater clarity. Even Jesus’ passage from a tangible presence to an invisible one required a particularly intense light. The evangelists have tried to clarify it in various ways.
The light that is offered to us today comes from the last page of the Mark’s Gospel.
The passage opens with a great scene (vv. 15-16). The Risen Christ appears to the Eleven and indicates the mission they are called upon to perform: “Go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News to all creation.”
It is surprising that the good news should be announced: “to every creature.” The expression certainly means “every person,” but also contains an invitation to open the horizons and to contemplate a salvation that extends to the whole universe. Every creature, in fact, is the subject of God’s affectionate fondness (Prov 8:22-31).
Because of sin, the human has often taken a wrong relationship with creation.
Driven by insatiable covetousness and greed, people misunderstood or betrayed God’s intentions. Instead of acting as a gardener and caretaker of the world, they became a despot and predator. They did not use science and technology in line with the creator’s project but a reckless and an arbitrary way. He manipulated nature at will, bending it to his own selfish interests or crazy designs. When they did so, they reintroduced chaos.
For this reason—as Paul sensed—all creatures are waiting for the beneficial effects of salvation: “All creation is eagerly expecting the birth in glory of the children of God. For even the created world will be freed from this fate of death” (Rom 8:19-21).
The proclamation of the gospel frees man from the conviction of being an absolute master. It makes him realize that he has no right to intervene at will on nature and to cause it to establish a new relationship, not only with others but also with the environment, plants, animals.
Salvation and condemnation depend on the acceptance or rejection of the message of the Gospel and baptism (v. 16).
The church, with the means of salvation that she offers, cannot be culpably ignored. In the word of God it announces, it is Christ who reveals Himself; in administering the sacraments, it is Christ who, through sensible and effective signs, communicates his life. To refuse these gifts amounts to enacting one’s own downfall, which is not the eternal damnation, but the foolish choice, made today, to exclude oneself from God’s plan.
Matthew recalls the last words of the Risen Lord: “I am with you always, even to the end of this world” (Mt 28:20). Jesus did not leave us a souvenir photo, a memorial statue, a relic. He wanted to stay forever next to the disciples, though no longer in a way perceptible to the senses.
In the second part of the passage (vv. 17-18) Mark lists five signs through which the Risen Christ manifests his presence: “Those who have believed will cast out demons and speak new languages; they will pick up snakes and if they drink anything poisonous, they will be unharmed; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will be healed.”
The most immediate impression is that of very unusual wonders. They seem even strange, difficult to see because, even if they exist, they are extremely rare. Meanwhile, it seems that Jesus promises signs that are able to continuously validate the proclamation of the gospel.
He has always resolutely opposed the request for demonstrative signs (Lk 11:29-32), and yet, at the end of the second century A.D., the apologetic conception of miracle has come to prevail and we too inherited it. If we are not careful, we run the risk of misunderstanding the meaning of the words of the Risen Lord.
It is true that the preaching of the gospel is accompanied by even extraordinary signs but these do not constitute evidence. It is a proclamation, a good news. They proclaim that salvation is in place and that, in spite of all oppositions, the kingdom of God will be fulfilled in its fullness. The apostles realized them that they were not to compete with magicians and soothsayers but to bear witness that the risen Lord continued to operate in the world.
The extraordinary signs listed by Mark should be read and interpreted in the light of biblical symbolism. The prophets used these and other images to describe the messianic times and the new world. It is enough to remember the famous prophecy: “The wolf will dwell with the lamb, the leopard will rest beside the kid. By the cobra’s den, the infant will play” (Is 11:6-8). Isaiah did not intend to announce a phenomenal change of the aggressive and dangerous nature of animals. He promised the end of the struggles and enmities that exist in the world. Through the image of the animals he ensured that, in the kingdom of God, there would be no place for hostility, rivalry, mutual aggression among people.
The words of the Risen Lord must be interpreted in light of this biblical language.
The demons represent all the forces of death found in the human. They cause him to make choices opposed to the gospel: pride, greed of money, hatred, selfish impulses. These demons are not won with the use of exorcism rites, but with the power of the word of Christ and the Spirit he gave us. It is the proclamation of the gospel that drives them away. The Eucharist and the other sacraments communicate the divine power that allows to resist their attacks. If these forces of death are now dominated, it means that the Risen Christ is alive and present in the world.
The new languages refer to an ecstatic phenomenon, very popular in the early church. In a different way, the miracle must be repeated in our Christian communities: humanity needs a whole new language; insult, arrogance, violence have already been heard too much. Now people want to hear of love, forgiveness, free and unconditional service, and the disciples of Christ must be able to speak them.
The snakes and the poisons are often referred to in the Bible as symbols of the enemies of the human and of life. It is not easy to immediately identify them because they are often so sly and devious and even the deadly poisons that they spread may seem intoxicating drinks. The just one is invited not to fear the snakes (Ps 91:13) and the disciples must not be afraid. The strength they received from Christ, in fact, makes them invulnerable, “You see, I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the Enemy, so that nothing will harm you” (Lk 10:19).
The healings are the sign that Jesus has also often offered. If the word of the gospel will do inexplicable and miraculous recoveries to life it will be apparent to all that the Christian community is the bearer of a divine power capable of recreating the world.
In verse 19, the theme of today’s feast is summed up: “So then, after speaking to them, the Lord Jesus was taken up into heaven and took his place at the right hand of God.”
It is a theological statement. In fact, God has neither right nor left and in heaven, he does not sit. The image refers to the use of the oriental courts where the subjects who had shown heroic fidelity to their lords were summoned to the palace. In front of all the dignitaries, they were invited by the king to sit on his right. The words the psalmist alludes to the new king, on the day of his enthronement: “Sit at my right hand till I make your foes your footstool” (Ps 110:1). They refer to this use.
The evangelist wants to tell us that Jesus, the defeated according to people, has been proclaimed by God, “his faithful servant.” He had not established the long-awaited earthly dominion of the people of Israel. He had not subdued their enemies with the sword but had started the kingdom of God, to a whole new world, offering his own life and shedding his own blood. Because of his faithfulness, God exalted him (Phil 2:6-11), made him ascend to heaven (Eph 4:8-9), has subjected all creation to him (1 Cor 15:27). Using image of the enthronement of the Messiah, the authors of the New Testament repeat: God “made him sit at his right hand” (1 Pet 3:18-22).
The concluding sentence of Mark’s Gospel: “The Eleven went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it” (v. 20) testifies to the belief of the first disciples of not being alone, but always having the Lord Jesus next to them. He worked miracles of salvation with them.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: