The Ascension (continued)

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. Yesterday we considered a detailed account of the first part of the reading from Acts. Today, we continue our detailed look.

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.” Verse 1:8 provides a “table of contents” for Acts. The witness “in Jerusalem” is Acts 2 to 7. “Throughout Judea and Samaria” is from chapters 8 to 12, and to “the ends of the earth” from Acts 13 to 28. “The ends of the earth” is an echo of Isa 49:6 (“I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” – quoted explicitly in Acts 13:47)) Both Acts and the Psalms of Solomon, a slightly earlier non-Biblical Jewish writing, apply the phrase “the ends of the earth” to Rome. Acts ends in Rome. And Pss Sol 8:15 calls the Roman general Pompey “him that is from the end of the earth.” Of course, it can simply mean the whole of the world, even beyond Rome.

When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. Acts 1:9 mentions that the disciples saw Jesus actually being taken up to heaven to reminds readers of 2 Kgs 2:4–15. There, the prophet Elijah told his disciple Elisha that only if he saw Elijah being taken up to heaven would he receive double Elijah’s portion of the Holy Spirit. Elisha did see the flaming chariot take up Elijah and therefore received the same Spirit as Elijah. So in Acts 1:9, the disciples saw Jesus being taken up in a cloud and will receive Jesus’ Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. 11 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.” The disciples are portrayed as looking intently into the sky as Jesus disappears, a detail which suggests that they are longing for the reappearance of Jesus or some other happening which will indicate that what they have seen is not the final act in the drama. Their unspoken prayer is answered by the appearance of two figures dressed in white. The description is that of angels (Luke 24:4; Acts 10:30) who wear bright, shining clothes. Their function is to give a commentary on what has happened. They ask the disciples why they are gazing into heaven; the question is an implicit reproach of them for dawdling there and longing for Jesus to remain with them. Already the disciples have had a command as to what they are to do. Now they are given an assurance that the ascension of Jesus is a guarantee that, as it was possible for Jesus to ascend into heaven, so it will be possible for him to return in the same way, i.e. on a cloud at the parousia (Luke 21:27; Mark 14:62; cf. Dan. 7:13). Thus the promise of the parousia forms the background of hope against which the disciples are to act as the witnesses to Jesus. In effect the present passage corresponds to Jesus’ statement in Mark 13:10 that the gospel must first be preached to all nations before the end can come.

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