Reading I: Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47:2-3, 6-9
Reading II: Eph 1:17-23
Gospel: Matt 28:16-20
The meaning of the feast of the Ascension is found outside of human history. However, its implications touch the lives of all believers. We might wonder just what really happened on that ascension day. Was Jesus actually lifted up? And if so, where did his body go? The space travel that this generation knows so well underscores the ambiguity of such questions. Astronauts have been ‘up there’ and, while they have seen quite a bit, they have come across no resurrected body. So what does this feast mean? Both the first reading and the gospel give a few descriptive details of the event, but it is the reading from Ephesians that tells us what Jesus’ ascension signifies.
On the feast of the Ascension we turn our attention away from the earthly life of Jesus and stand in awe of the exaltation he enjoys at the right hand of God. Both his ascending and his placement at God’s right hand are metaphors that attempt to capture some aspect of the mystery we celebrate today. Jesus, this man who lived among us, who was put to death because of his integrity as the messiah of God, has been exalted by God. Metaphorical language describes his exaltation, stating that Jesus enjoys the place of honor in God’s presence. His being lifted up is another metaphorical way of speaking. It characterizes his transition from existence on earth (even resurrected existence) to existence with God.
The description of his ascension to God reflects a mythical understanding of cosmology. The ancients believed that after the great primeval battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, in which the forces of good were triumphant, a palace was built for the conquering deity. It was from the heavenly throne in this palace that the victorious god ruled heaven and earth. This mythic scene may well explain the throne of God in heaven described in today’s psalm response and in so many other places in Israel’s theology. This also throws light on the meaning of today’s feast that celebrates Jesus ascending to the place of honor at the right hand of God. The principalities, authorities, powers, and dominions referred to in the Letter to the Ephesians are probably celestial beings. Though we today do not subscribe to the same understanding of the cosmos, the underlying meaning of the passage is the same: Jesus has been raised above all other beings, even those that others considered minor heavenly beings. He has conquered death, and so everything else is also under his feet. Since people believed that part of the essence of a person was captured in that person’s name, even the name of Jesus is above all other names.
These mythic ideas may explain the description of Jesus’ ascension as provided in the biblical passages. However, they are mythic ideas, not historic facts. In other words, they do not tell us what really happened. Though the historical details are what might interest us most, they are probably the least important. As with all of the mysteries that surround Jesus, the religious meaning of his exaltation is so sublime that a mere factual description cannot capture its meaning, and so we revert to myth.
As mentioned above, while this is a feast celebrating the ascension of Jesus into heaven, the readings indicate that his exaltation carries implications for our lives here on earth. In the first reading, Jesus’ followers are told not to stand looking up to heaven, preoccupied with what was in the past. Just before he ascended, they had asked Jesus about the reestablishment of the kingdom of Israel. He redirected their attention to the future, to the coming of the Spirit and to their ministerial responsibilities that will follow this coming: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” As they stand astonished, looking up to heaven, they are once again redirected to the future. The two men who suddenly appear assure them that Jesus will return.
This new direction that is set for them is stated even clearer in the gospel where the eleven are given a commission. With Jesus’ departure, it is now their responsibility to continue the work that he began. They are told to make disciples of all the nations, to baptize and to teach. This is an awesome task! Will they be able to accomplish this without the physical presence of Jesus? Yes! Jesus promises that they will indeed be able to accomplish this for though he is leaving them, he will be with them always, “until the end of the age.”
If we merely stand awe-struck looking up to heaven as did the early disciples, our gaze will be redirected as was theirs. The mission of Jesus is now in our hands. It is now our responsibility to make disciples of all nations, to bring the good news to the people of our age. The disciples were not alone in this task, and neither are we. Jesus’ words are directed to us as well: “I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Dianne Bergant, CSA
Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Old Testament Studies