Sunday Scripture: Ascension (YEAR C)



Welcome to this, the forty-second of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass.

I have undertaken this project, regularly posting background information on the readings at Sunday Mass as part of my own prayer life. I have found it helps me to do a little study before I go to Mass about the readings, what the theme of the week is, how it follows on from the previous week's readings and what is being said.

In sharing this, I hope to help you too get more from the Bible and Sunday Scripture readings. Perhaps it might give you confidence in the value and legitimacy of the Bible, or perhaps it might inspire you to pray the Divine Office or investigate the weekly readings for yourself.

I see this as very clearly part of what the Church teaches about the Bible:
This heaven-sent treasure Holy Church considers as the most precious source of doctrine on faith and morals. No wonder herefore that, as she received it intact from the hands of the Apostles, so she kept it with all care, defended it from every false and perverse interpretation and used it diligently as an instrument for securing the eternal salvation of souls, as almost countless documents in every age strikingly bear witness. ~Divino Afflante Spiritu
When fideism said that we should turn away from science and study and rely on the Bible for exactly what it is, in a literal sense, the Church said "no", we have nothing to fear from a proper understanding of Scripture and thus we were encouraged to delve ever deeper into the treasure chest of sacred Scripture to see what riches we could find there.

If you want to know how these posts came about, please read my first post in this series here.

I would like to think this regular blog would be a great help to anyone who reads at Mass, to enable them to foster a deeper understanding of the message they are trying to impart to the congregation.

There are several different ways to read this post. I would suggest the first thing to do is to look at the relevant readings. You might then want to look at the specific commentary for a particular reading. I post the same summary of the featured Biblical books each week, but at the end, under the subheading this week, you will usually find some commentary specific to each week. At the end I post a passage which attempts to draw all the readings together and understand the message.

My reflections are not definitive, but based on my study and perhaps authenticated by careful reference to the Biblical Commentaries and books I list at the bottom each week.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:


Jesus Christ the Glorified Lord of All.

Salvador Dalí, The Ascension of Christ, 1958. Oil on canvas.


OK so at this point you may well be rather confused as to why I'm not posting the readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. This might particularly be the case if you are not resident in the UK. The reason is explained well by Bruvver Eccles like this:
"almost everyone - from the Pope downwards - believes that today is Ascension Day. However, the Magic Circle has decided to defer it to Sunday. This is believed to be because there is a highly important football match taking place tonight (Leicester v. Watford), which several bishops are unwilling to miss."
 If still confused, you might find this helps with understanding why this Sunday in the UK is actually the Feast of the Ascension.
—————————————————————————————————————————————




Collect:
Gladden us with holy joys almighty God,
and make us rejoice with devout thanksgiving,
for the Ascension of Christ your Son is our exaltation,
and, where the Head has gone before in glory,
the Body is called to follow in hope.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever.

This week's readings are:
  • First Reading: Acts of the Apostles 1: 1-11.
  • Psalm 46: 2-3, 6-9; Response: v. 6. 
  • Second Reading: Ephesians 1: 17-23.
  • Gospel: Luke 24:46-53.
First, a short preliminary survey of each of the books.

I will post the same, or similar prelims week on week, for each book as we encounter them, although I may add a little detail specific to each week's readings.

The Acts of the Apostles I have written a detailed exposition of Acts which you can read here.

This week: Acts begins with a dedication (Acts 1:1-5) that links his efforts in the first volume (that is the Gospel of Luke) with those in this volume. In other words, he has gone to the same painstaking lengths to separate fact from fiction in preserving the historical memory of the early Christians. This is a historical work, prefaced in the manner of contemporary historical works. Luke offers an evangelistic presentation of Jesus’ life and mission (in the Gospel of Luke), and here in Acts, this work continues. Luke tells us how Jesus the LORD is still with us; His Holy Spirit has communicated His commandment to the Apostles “whom He had chosen” (Acts 1:2). This is important. Acts is the story of the expansion of the Church under the impulse of the Holy Spirit and has been described as the Gospel of the Spirit. Luke expresses this in 1:8, which sums up the plan of the book: the story of the choice of the disciples by the divine authority of the Holy Spirit, and their inspiration and animation to spread the Gospel message to the ends of the earth. Thus the reading this week is preparing Jesus' followers for the Spirit. Luke uses the the single Resurrection—Ascension complex as a hinge. The text of Acts recounts the Ascension Luke has already told us about in Luke 24:50-51 (see today's Gospel). From God's viewpoint the Ascension of the Risen Jesus after death is timeless, but there is a sequence from the viewpoint of those whose lives it touched. For the Gospel the Ascension visibly terminates the activity of Jesus on earth; for Acts it will prepare the Apostles to be witnesses to Him to the ends of the earth.

Psalms is the Bible's manual of inspired song and prayer. The collection of 150 Psalms represents the culmination of a long tradition that extends across almost the full span of the history of ancient Israel, from the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) until the last centuries of the Old Testament era (c. 200 B.C.). In Hebrew the canon of the Bible is called the TNK or Tanakh, which consists of Torah (teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—thus TaNaKh. Psalms makes up the first of the writings in the Hebrew text. One of the most powerful things we know about the Psalms is that this is how Jesus Himself prayed.

This week: A hymn of victory frequently classed as an 'Enthronement Psalm'. Of course it contains the intriguing verse "God goes up with shouts of joy, the LORD goes up with trumpet blast." Those who see here an Enthronement at the Feast of YHWH, or of the Covenant, see here the 'cultic' act of mounting the throne, perhaps a procession with the Ark up the Temple Hill, (God's presence os 'going up'), on a special feast day. Of course there is a huge connection with to God's eventual messianic exaltation in the eyes of all mankind. Thus it is easy to see why the verse is aptly used in the liturgy on Ascension Day.

Ephesians was traditionally accepted to have been a letter written by St. Paul. He twice identifies himself thus (1:1 and 3:1). However it's authorship was first questioned by Erasmus of Rotterdam in the sixteenth century and since then there has been much dialogue regarding this matter. Today it is widely accepted that Ephesians was written in Paul's name by one of his disciples who wished to honour the apostle by developing his doctrine and applying it to new situations in the Church. Indeed Ephesians is the most doctrinal of all the Pauline corpus. The letter is dated either early 60's (if you believe Paul wrote it), or late 90's. It constitutes Paul's mystagogical catechesis for the newly baptised, its towering theme is the "mystery" of Jesus Christ once concealed but now revealed (1:9; 3:4; 9). The mystery is the divine plan of vocation and predestination, redemption, and the recapitulation of all things in Christ.

This week: Paul acknowledges thankfully the faith and love of the recipients and prays that they may grow in knowledge of the exalted Christ who has been put over all powers now and forever. And all this is for the Church, His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. Thus Paul sees the Church as a goal in God's plan, which involves the whole of creation—a church, therefore, that has a future dimension.

The Gospel According to St. Luke: Luke is not only a theologian; he is also a consummate literary artist with a mind that is tuned to the aesthetic. Luke begins his Gospel with a clearly stated aim: “to draw up an account of the events that have happened”. Luke’s Gospel is the longest of the four gospels, this despite the fact that it only represents half the Lucan writings; Luke’s Gospel was originally joined to Acts as part of a two-volume work. This is evident in the Gospel itself, which frequently looks forward to Acts and Paul’s mission.

Brown indicates that the Gospel was written for churches in Greece and Syria, areas affected by Paul’s mission either directly, or indirectly. Lucan thought and proclivities can be detected in the extent to which the author changes the Marcan material, which makes up about thirty-five percent of Luke. Luke certainly improves Mark’s Greek, bettering the grammar, syntax and vocabulary, as evidenced in 4:1, 31 and 38. Luke alters the Latinism kēnsos (= census) in 20:22 from Mark 12:14 and substituting the more exact “craftiness- treachery” for “hypocrisy” in Mark 12:15 .

Luke alters the Marcan sequence to accomplish his goals as stated in the prologue: to write carefully and in an orderly manner, for example he puts Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth at the opening of the Galilean ministry (Luke 4:16-30) rather than after some time had elapsed (Mark 6:1-6) in order to explain why his Galilean ministry was centred at Capernaum.

Christologically, Luke is more reverential about Jesus than Mark and he avoids Marcan passages that might make Jesus seem weak, harsh or emotional (e.g. Mark 10:14 where Jesus is indignant). He also stresses detachment from possessions (Luke 5:11,28), the Twelve are even forbidden to take a staff!

Adrian Hastings, in his book Prophet and Witness in Jerusalem, makes particular capital over Luke’s allusion to the guilt of Jerusalem. Hastings suggests that this is because Jerusalem represented the old, exclusive Israel. Brown also draws attention to this point in An Introduction to the New Testament, where he asks if Pilate’s triple declaration of Jesus’ innocence represents an attempt to convince Greco-Roman readers that the Jews were totally responsible for the crucifixion. For Hastings, Luke demonstrates a strong affinity for the universality of Christianity and its apostolate to the Gentiles and points out to the Jews that they are the ones who have constantly rejected the messengers of God:

Hence it is not surprising if they now find themselves cut off from the new church and Holy People of God. Hastings states that this demonstrates that Luke was writing so that Christians might understand that Jerusalem had rejected Our Lord and thus had been rejected and was no longer the centre of God’s church, which had turned to the conversion of the Gentiles. It would seem to me that this idea would have been greatly aided by the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Brown however, notes that Acts 4:25-28 clearly blames Pilate and mitigates that this may have been an attempt to persuade Roman officials to deal fairly with Christians. Brown eventually concludes that the description of Jewish leaders resisting the spread of Christianity springs from a desire to explain why Christian preachers and especially Paul turned to the Gentiles.

The fact that the last half of Acts concentrates on Paul’s career raises the likelihood that Luke-Acts was addressed to the churches descended from the Pauline mission. Talbert concludes his study of Luke-Acts with the finding that the Gospel was indeed motivated by the “churchly situation”; The community was troubled by a concern for the true Christian tradition. Luke writes to aid Christians in these communities in their self-understanding, helping them to know that there was nothing subversive in their origins that should cause them to come into conflict with their Roman rulers.

The Lucan Gospel differs in many ways to Matthew making it seem likely that this Gospel was addressed to a different church (q.v.). The end of Acts attributed to Paul also indicates that the future of the Gospel lies with the Gentiles, which makes the intended audience unlikely to be Jewish Christians. This is corroborated by the way that Luke drops Marcan Aramaic expressions and place-names in his work.

Luke intends to trace the history of God’s plan from the coming of Jesus, to the fulfilment of the mission He gave to His disciples to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The earthly ministry of Jesus and all the events before the Ascension are the turning point in human history for Luke.

If this post on Luke sparked your interest, there's a post on the historicity of the Synoptics here.
The Site of the Ascension in Jerusalem
This week: The Gospel starts this week with Jesus giving His own Scripture lesson. He gives the Apostles a new understanding of the Old Testament, an insight that will allow them to see how and where it 'bears witness to Him' (cf Jn 5:39). This reinterpretation of the Old Testament is the basis of the primitive kerygma: the suffering of the Messiah and His Resurrection on the third day; and in consequence of this the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all men. This message of salvation will go forth from Jerusalem, preached by the Apostles who are witnesses of the fulfilment of the prophecies (cf Acts 1:8). The Good News is the straightforward proclamation of events the manifestly followed a pattern traced by God, the fulfilment of a divine plan. It was inevitable that this proclamation couched in terms of the OT, should itself become a new chapter in the Word of God. Luke has shown us, on the authority of Christ, that our preaching of Christ must be, first and last, scriptural. Jesus assured the Apostles that He would send upon them 'the promise of the Father' (cf Acts 2:16-21). Hence, they are bidden to stay in the city until 'baptised with the Holy Spirit' (Acts 1:4f). This is perfectly in accord with Luke's plan: in order to end His Gospel at Jerusalem He studiously avoids mention of the appearances in Galilee (cf 24:6). In this final charge Jesus looks to the future. His work is done; now begins the work of His disciples, the mission to the world.

Drawing them all together...

"Men of Galilee, why are you standing here looking into the sky? Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, this same Jesus, will come back in the same way as you have seen him go." These words sum up the mystery of the Ascension: we look back in loving remembrance, but we are pointed forward in a new perception of hope, born because we have seen and believed. In Acts a question is put to each one of us: “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” The answer to this question involves the fundamental truth about the life and destiny of every man and woman.

The answer has to do with our attitude to two basic realities which shape every human life: earth and heaven. First, the earth: “Why do you stand?”—Why are you here on earth? Our answer is that we are here on earth because our Maker has put us here as the crowning work of his creation. Almighty God, in his ineffable plan of love, created the universe, bringing it forth from nothing. Then, at the completion of this work, he bestowed life on men and women, creating them in his own image and likeness (cf. Gen Gen 1:26-27). He gave them the dignity of being children of God and the gift of immortality. We know that man went astray, misused the gift of freedom and said “No” to God, thus condemning himself to a life marked by evil, sin, suffering and death. But we also know that God was not resigned to this situation, but entered directly into humanity’s history, which then became a history of salvation. “We stand” on the earth, we are rooted in the earth and we grow from it. Here on earth we endeavour to do good in the many areas of everyday life, in the material and spiritual realms, in our relationships with other people, in our efforts to build up the human community and in culture. Here too we experience the weariness of those who make their way towards a goal by long and winding paths, amid hesitations, tensions, uncertainties, in the conviction that the journey will one day come to an end. That is when the question arises: Is this all there is? Is this earth on which “we stand” our final destiny?

And so we need to turn to the second part of the biblical question: “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” We have read that, just as the Apostles were asking the Risen Lord about the restoration of Israel’s earthly kingdom, “He was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.” And “they looked up to heaven as he went” (cf. Acts 1:9-10). They looked up to heaven because they looked to Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, raised up on high. We do not know whether at that precise moment they realised that a magnificent, infinite horizon was opening up before their eyes: the ultimate goal of our earthly pilgrimage. Perhaps they only realised this at Pentecost, in the light of the Holy Spirit. But for us, at a distance of two thousand years, the meaning of that event is quite clear. Here on earth, we are called to look up to heaven, to turn our minds and hearts to the inexpressible mystery of God. We are called to look towards this divine reality, to which we have been directed from our creation. For there we find life’s ultimate meaning.

Jesus' Footprint at the Site of the Ascension in Jerusalem

Bibliography:

Baker, K., SJ, Inside the Bible, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998.
Barret, C. K., Acts a Shorter Commentary, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2002.
Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Brown, R. et al (Ed) The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Chapman, 2000).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Dodd, C.H., The Founder of Christianity, (London: Collins, 1978).
Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991).
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, (London: Nelson, 1969).
Hahn, S., The Lamb's Supper (London: DLT, 1999).
Harrington, W. J., John: Spiritual Theologian (Dublin: The Columbia Press, 2007).
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001).
Kereszty, R., O. Cist., Jesus Christ—Fundamentals of Christology (New York: Alba, 2010).
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, (San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005).
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, (New York: St. Pauls, 2011).
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 3, No. 8/ May 2013.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, (New York, Touchstone, 1995).
Ratzinger, J., Introduction to Christianity, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004).
Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, (Bloomsbury, London, 2007).

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