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 linchpin between the two works of St. Luke. Yesterday we considered the account in the Acts of the Apostles in detail. Today we turn our attention to the Gospel account.
From the earliest times in the church, there was a danger of docetism, the heretical belief that Jesus was God behind a thin veneer of humanity: thus his suffering was only play-acting, and the Resurrection was simply a return to a completely spiritual existence with no bodily effect. The Letters of John combated this error (1 John 4:2–3; 2 John 7). The narrative from the Upper Room which precedes our passage stresses that Jesus’ resurrection body is real. The disciples touch him; the marks of the passion are visible in his hands and feet; he eats with the disciples.
Even though the Apostles have already heard about the earlier appearance. They are still excited and tense with the unfamiliarity of it all, and Jesus suddenly appears in their midst. His question to them is rhetorical, a way of introducing the Scriptural instruction that will help them to assimilate the truth of this marvelous event. The Old Testament is referred to in a traditional way by naming its three collections: law, prophets, and psalms (usually “writings”) – Luke 24:44. His words commissioning them as witnesses of his resurrection foreshadow the Acts of the Apostles. The “promise” of the Father is the Holy Spirit who will be given to empower them to fulfill their mission (Acts 1:8).
As mentioned above, there is no previous reference to “the promised of my Father” in Luke, but there various references to the Spirit, especially at the beginning of the Gospel (cf. 1;15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25-26; 3:16, 22; 4:1; 10:21). Note also that “Spirit” is not mentioned in all verses — but power (dynamis) from on high is clearly indicated (cf. v.49).
- John the Baptist came in the “spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the people for the Lord (1:17).
- The power of the Most High came upon Mary (1:35).
- Jesus returned from his temptation in the power of the Spirit (4:14).
- Jesus exhibited authority and power over the evil spirits (4:36)
- Jesus heals by the power of the Lord (5:17; 6:19; 8:46)
- Jesus gave the Twelve power and authority over demons and diseases (9:1)
- The enemy also has power, which the Twelve have been given authority over (10:19)
- Jesus does deeds of power which produces praise from the multitude of disciples (19:37)
- The disciples received power when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8)
- The disciples are able to perform healings and miracles by this power (Acts 3:12; 6:8; 8:13; 19:11)
- They preach boldly with this power (Acts 4:7, 33)
The gift of power is related to being witnesses of these things – not only to experience them, but to spread the experience to others.
Luke’s Gospel ends with the fulfillment of the journey begun in 9:51 (see Acts 1:2). It is surprising to find two contradictory accounts of the ascension by the same author. Here the ascension takes place on the day of resurrection; in Acts, it takes place forty days later (Acts 1:3, 9). The ascension as the exaltation of Jesus as the risen Lord at the right hand of the Father took place immediately as part of the resurrection triumph, but his visible leave-taking of the community happened at some later time. The accounts vary because Luke treats the same event from two points of view: in the Gospel the ascension is the climax of Jesus’ work; in Acts it is the prelude to the church’s mission.
Theologians also see in the Ascension the taking into heaven of the humanity of Jesus. The Incarnation is not something casual and fleeting but a divine action with permanent consequences. If the Ascension means the taking of Christ’s humanity into heaven, it means that with it will be taken the humanity which He has redeemed—those who are Christ’s, at His coming. It is a powerful expression of the redemption of this world, in contrast to mere escape from it.
Bethany is on the far side of the Mount of Olives, which lies east of Jerusalem (Acts 1:12). Jesus’ blessing indicates his handing on of the mission to the disciples and his promise of assistance as they carry it out. The whole scene is reminiscent of the blessing by the priest in Sir 50:20–21 (see also John 20:21–23). The Greek word for “homage” or “worship” (v. 52) is used for the first time in the Gospel for reverence toward Jesus (earlier it was given to God the Father: 4:7–8). The cross and resurrection has revealed his divinity.
The Gospel ends in the temple, where it began. Christianity at this point is still understood as the fulfillment of Jewish promises within Israel, not something radically separate from Judaism. The first Christians are faithful Jews. Their mission is still within Judaism (Acts 1–7) until they are led beyond under the Spirit’s guidance. The disciples are not despondent at the departure of Jesus (compare John 14:1). They are full of joy, understanding the fulfillment of Jesus’ mission and awaiting the gift he has promised.