Imagine being a disciple of Jesus in his time and place

Readings:  AA 1.1-11; Ps. 47; Eph. 1.17-23; Lk. 24.46-53 

 On Good Friday, you would have watched him being beaten and ridiculed, carrying his cross, being nailed to the cross, and dying.  On Easter Sunday morning, you and other small groups of disciples would have witnessed Jesus walking, talking, eating, and preaching.  Imagine your excitement and joy.  And then Jesus would have invited you to walk with him the short mile from the city of Jerusalem east to the town of Bethany, where he "raised his hands, and blessed them Ö and was taken up to heaven."  The disciples "did him homage and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God."  "Unbelievable!" Yes?  Some would say that in a voice full of faith meaning "awesome."  Others would say "unbelievable" in a skeptical fashion intending unbelievableís literal meaning. 

What really happened?  Three primary sources declare explicitly the events of the Ascension.  This morningís reading from the Acts of the Apostles begins its first sentence of the first chapter by declaring that Jesus was "taken up" into the heavens and that the Apostles saw this happen.  This morningís gospel of St. Luke declares that eyewitnesses saw Jesus ascend into heaven.  The gospel of Mark ends this way:  "Then after speaking to them [the Eleven Apostles], the Lord Jesus was taken up into heaven and took his seat at Godís right hand.  The Eleven went forth and preached everywhere." 

Other Scriptural sources refer implicitly to Jesusí exalted lordship but without stating explicitly that Jesus had ascended.  Most of St. Paulís letters, the first letter of St. Peter, the letter to the Hebrews, and St. Johnís gospel implicitly accepts the ascension by teaching that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, and reigns as the lord of history.  By the end of the first century, Jesusí ascension was a fact of faith. 

The early Church continued this teaching.  In the Nicene Creed which was written in 325, we will pray today that "Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father."  Various early Fathers of the Church, such as St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Augustine of Hippo, write at length about the ascension.   Both Scriptures and Tradition state unequivocally that Jesus suffered, died, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. 

What significance does this essential fact of faith have for us Christians 2,000 years after Christís ascension?  First, Jesus has become our Advocate in heaven.  He invites and hears our prayers and petitions.  Second, Jesus said that he did not want to leave us spiritual orphans, so he would send his Spirit to dwell within the Church and through the Church within the world.  Third, because Jesus ascended into heaven in a glorified body, we too hope to live in heaven in a glorified body.  We will not be simply spiritual souls floating around in heaven. 

Note the distinctions among some major feasts: at the Transfiguration, Jesus entered temporarily into a cloud of glory; at the Ascension, Jesus entered permanently into the cloud of glory; only after the Ascension do we have the Pentecost.  

Regarding perspective on various events in Jesusí life, the Church asks us to regard the final events of Jesusí life on earth as a continuum.  Jesusí suffering, death, resurrection and ascension are to be considered as one composite of salvation history.   The ascension is not to be viewed merely as a less important or secondary step after the Easter Resurrection.   Jesusí ascension concludes his victory over Satan, over sin and death, his return to the metaphorical right hand of the Father, and his sitting in glory from which he will come a second time to judge all creation.   

As an aside, if you had listened closely to the readings, you may have noticed that the gospel of Luke presents the ascension as having happened perhaps as early as Easter Sunday evening, whereas the Acts of the Apostles declares that the ascension took place forty days after Easter.   It is good to remember two things: first, that Luke specifies no number of days before Jesus ascended, and second, that forty is a symbolic number signifying a time of preparation before an important event.  You will remember that Noah endured the Great Flood for forty days, that the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, and that Jesus fasted for forty days and nights before beginning his public ministry.  The Scriptures have primarily a theological purpose not an historical purpose.  Regardless of how many specific days Jesus spent on earth, this period allowed him sufficient time to appear to the apostles and disciples, to reveal his resurrected state, to instruct, encourage and to assure his followers of his return to his Father.

Just before ascending, Jesus spoke to his apostles and disciples these words: "You will be my witnesses Ö to the ends of the earth."  This remains our commission in our time and place.  For Godís sake, please be witnesses to the ends of the earth of Jesusí suffering, death, resurrection and ascension.

Read other homilies by Father O'Malley