THE SOLEMNITY OF THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD (2020)
Acts of the Apostles 1:1-11
Psalms 47:2-3, 6-9
In most enlightened parts of the country, what used to be “Ascension Thursday” is celebrated on the Sunday preceding the great feast of Pentecost. Why the bishops of the United States couldn’t agree that it was far better for the majority of Americans to celebrate such a momentous feast than to stick to the strict calculation of forty days, which placed it on a Thursday, is a question which could cause lots of speculation. Indeed, even more perplexing, is why none of the successors of the dissenting bishops, to the best of my knowledge, have not recognized that benefit and sought to readdress the issue. In any case, we are fortunate to be able to celebrate the Lord’s Ascension into heaven on Sunday, even if its only in the comfort of our own homes.
Our first reading is from the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, what some might call Luke’s sequel to his gospel. The book begins where the gospel ended with a far leaner description of the ascension: “As [Jesus] blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven,” an ascension referenced in today’s first reading. It is from Acts that we learn of the ascension’s connection to “forty days,” the specific time that Jesus appeared to the apostles. Also connected to the end of Luke’s gospel is the exhortation “not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father about which you have heard [Jesus] speak,” a perfect exhortation which points us toward the celebration of Pentecost.
The beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, while acknowledging the end of Luke’s gospel, affords us a much fuller description of the ascension, and also sheds some light on the apostles, who still seem to have little sense of what is actually happening. Acts would suggest that at one of the times when Jesus was “presenting himself alive” to the apostles, they asked Jesus: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” It would seem like an innocent question, had not Luke, speaking to Theophilus, said that in his first book he “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.” The apostles had walked and talked with Jesus for the better part of three years, and then were treated to forty days when Jesus would come to them in His resurrected form, and yet they still don’t seem to understand what Jesus’ message was truly about. The Acts has Jesus extraordinarily patient with the apostles, but one can almost hear Him sigh, and utter one of His “I’ve been with you all this time, and you still do not understand” statements.
Jesus is confident that the reason they are staying in Jerusalem will make all the difference in the world: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The apostles are still not ready for what they were chosen for, but with the coming of the Spirit they will be able to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20). After Jesus leaves, the angels say “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking up at the sky?,” as if to say you can go now, go do something constructive and “apostle-like.” Acts tells us they returned to that “upper room where they were staying,” and get to the business of replacing Judas. There isn’t much evangelization going on. At least not yet.
The celebration of this day is the perfect bridge to what we will celebrate next week. Today Jesus leaves this world “to mount His throne with great joy,” and the apostles who are left behind will soon be able to fully become the people Jesus had confidence they could become. Without the presence of the Holy Spirit, the apostles are not much different than they were when Jesus chose them, still capable of being confused, still capable of missing the point. With the “Spirit of wisdom and revelation” (Ephesians) the “eyes of [the apostles’] hearts will be enlightened,” and they will “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.”
And what the Spirit does for the apostles, it does for us. The Spirit shared with us at our baptism “enlightens” us, and gives us a new way of seeing things. It is the Spirit that helps us hold on when our faith is shaken. When the trials and difficulties of the world in which we live tend to overwhelm us, when people do not live up to our expectations of them, when people malign and betray us, it is the Spirit who comforts us and reminds us of the “hope that belongs to His call,” a hope that keeps us from the sin of despair. When bad things happen to good people, when a pandemic steals from us people that are dear to us, when the world seems to be spiraling out of control, it is the Spirit that helps us to keep our balance. It is the Spirit of the one whose Ascension we celebrate today who, as Matthew said, will be “with us always, until the end of time.” In anticipation of what we will celebrate next week, let us be grateful for the gift of the Spirit, a gift made possible by our Lord’s Ascension into heaven.