The Ascension

This coming Sunday we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension. The readings are taken from St. Luke’s Gospel and his Acts of the Apostles. Both the first reading and the gospel are accounts of the Ascension, making this event the lynchpin between the two works of St. Luke. Yesterday we considered a high-level view of the unity of the two volumes as a way of showing the centrality of the Ascension as a connection of the mission of Jesus and the mission of the Church.

I think it may be a fair statement that we modern readers are more engaged by the actual ascending into heaven, but I would suggest that is not Luke’s central focus. Luke is more concerned with what was said than with what happened. The vital question was the one posed by the disciples: now that Jesus had been raised from the dead, was God going to complete his purpose by finally establishing his rule? The answer given was twofold. First, the time of this event remained God’s secret; what was more important was the immediate task of the disciples which was to act as witnesses to Jesus from Jerusalem to the end of the earth. The spread of God’s rule was to take place by means of the disciples, empowered by the Spirit. This was the final command of Jesus before he left the disciples.

Secondly, the departure of Jesus was interpreted as a pattern for his ultimate return to the earth to inaugurate the final establishment of the rule of God. These verses spell out God’s purpose and the place of the church in it. They postulate that the period of witness and mission must precede the return of Jesus. They were in effect a warning to the disciples not to expect a speedy winding up of history. For Luke’s readers some forty or more years later they were a reminder of an ongoing task: the gospel must still be taken to the end of the earth. At the same time the words contain a note of promise in that the departure of Jesus is compensated for by the coming of the Spirit, given by Jesus himself (2:33).

When they had gathered together they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7  He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.  The question about restoring the rule to Israel in 1:6 also shows continued misunderstanding about what the kingdom of God meant. Acts 2:3 will show that God’s promise was about the coming of the Holy Spirit, not an earthly empire. The prohibition against trying to compute the times of the end is meant to discourage Luke’s readers from guessing what cannot be known. Rather, they should focus on the power of the Spirit as the sign of living in the promised final days. Luke says Christians are to use this power during whatever time is left to witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth. They should not waste energy trying to figure out when the end of the world will be….to be continued

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