Ascension Of The Lord
When searching for the meaning of the ascension, we are faced with a problem. What happen-ed? When did it happen? How did it happen? At the original ending of the Gospel of Mark, our oldest gospel, there is no ascension of Jesus, only a promise of a post-resurrection appearance. The gospel which the Lectionary gives us for this feast in Year B is a later addition to Mark’s gospel. More on this later. In the Gospel of Matthew there is no ascension, but a promise that “I will be with you always until the completion of the age.” In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus appears to his disciples on the evening of his resurrection, instructs them briefly, leads them out of Jerusalem to Bethany on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, “parted from them, and was carried off to heaven.” This is all in one day. In Luke’s second volume, Acts of Apostles, Jesus kept appearing to his disciples throughout forty days instructing them. Then as they were watching, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus rises from the dead, appears to Mary of Magdala, ascends to his Father, and returns on the evening of the same day to breathe the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. To all this confusion, Jesus himself might say, “Oy vey! What have they done with my song?”
Before taking a closer look at our first reading (from Acts) and our gospel, we turn to our second reading, a selection from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. This gives us the meaning of the ascension but abstracts entirely from the above unanswerable questions, “What? When? How?
“In accord with the exercise of his (God’s) great might, which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead, and seating him at his right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and above every name that is named in this age and in the age to come. And he put all things beneath his feet, and gave him as head over all things to the church which is his body….” This is a typical way of Paul expressing himself in a stream of consciousness, clause after clause after clause. Matthew shortens all these clauses in a more understandable way when Jesus is depicted as saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Another way of expressing the meaning of the ascension of Jesus: the glory that the Son of God, always shared with the Father and the Holy Spirit, has now been shared with his human nature. One of us is God. That is why we are correct in saying, “We have died with him. We have risen with him. We have ascended with him into eternal glory.”
The first reading: Luke dedicates his gospel and Acts of Apostles to a Christian who probably financially sponsored his research, his travels, and the expensive materials (parchment, ink, sharpened quills) used for writing. After the dedication to Theophilus, Luke tells readers that Jesus instructed his disciples during forty days through the Holy Spirit. The attribution to the Holy Spirit is typical of Luke far more than any other gospel. In Luke’s theology, and only in Luke’s theology, these instructions had to extend over forty days because Luke is going to set the descent of the Holy Spirit on the fiftieth day after Passover. Therefore he allows forty days for instruction plus nine days, (the first Novena, from the Latin novem meaning “nine”), for prayer. Then the descent of the Holy Spirit and the first conversions to Christ, (first harvest of Christians), would occur on the Jewish harvest feast called Pentecost, (from the Greek ordinal number pentecoste meaning fiftieth). Thus Luke’s theological genius guided by the Holy Spirit.
The original ending of the Gospel of Mark was Mark 16:8. Speaking of the women who discovered the empty tomb, after they were given orders by a young man in white at the tomb to report the resurrection to the disciples, Mark closed his gospel this way, “They went out and fled from the tomb…, and they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” This ending was unsatisfactory. Therefore ancient manuscripts of Mark show attempts to add at least nine new endings to Mark’s gospel. The gospel of today’s Mass is called “the Long Ending.” Whoever the author of this ending may be, he or she knew the other gospels and the Letters of Paul, and gleaned from them a medley of phrases, plus some unusual promises. This medley constructed out of the other gospels does include an ascension, “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them was taken up into heaven, and took his seat at the right hand of God.” The author of the Long Ending includes the universal mission of the apostles. He seems to have taken this concept from the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel. Like most people who use other sources, he disguised his borrowing from Matthew well enough so that his version appears original.
Despite this gospel reading being a later addition to Mark’s gospel, it must be considered an authentic part of this gospel because it was included in the canonization of Mark ’s gospel and the other gospels by the Council of Trent, 1545-1563. Now the unusual promises noted above. “They will pick up serpents with their hands.” This is the foundation for Christian sects handling poisonous snakes during their worship services, still practiced in small fundamentalist churches in Appalachia. Some get bitten, and some die of the poison. To which others reply, “Their faith was too weak.” A better answer: “Get some common sense and put your snakes in a zoo.” Today the author would have to add a caution, “Don’t try this at home.” The same must be said about the next unusual promise, “If they drink any deadly thing it will not harm them.” The author of the Long Ending pulled the serpent idea out of Acts 28:3-6; Luke 10:19; and from the Old Testament Book of Wisdom 16:10. The harmless deadly poison could have been drawn from a story in 1 Kings 4:38-41. Putting aside the Long Ending, let us return to the meaning of the ascension of Jesus by summarizing the second reading: “He is King of Kings! Lord of Lords!