It’s all about witnessing. That’s what I come away with after spending some time with both accounts of the Ascension. In today’s first reading, from Acts, the Ascension takes place forty days after the Resurrection – forty days, that sacred interval of time that we’ve seen before, whether in the Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness (Lk 4 : 2), or in the story of Elijah (1 Kings 19:7) or that of the whole people of Israel (Dt 8). According to The New American Bible’s notes to Acts 1, “what should probably be understood as one event (resurrection, glorification, ascension, sending of the Spirit—the paschal mystery) has been historicized by Luke when he writes of a visible ascension of Jesus after forty days and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. For Luke, the ascension marks the end of the appearances of Jesus except for the extraordinary appearance to Paul. With regard to Luke’s understanding of salvation history, the ascension also marks the end of the time of Jesus (Lk 24:50–53) and signals the beginning of the time of the church.”
However we understand this time period, the words of our text offer us some insight into its meaning for the people with whom Jesus spent it. During those forty sacred days, Jesus “presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered. . . and [was] speaking about the kingdom of God” (1 : 3)
In a word, Jesus resumes teaching, using his presence, that is, his risen body, as the ultimate teaching tool. The Kingdom of God is powerfully present for those deeply relieved and joyful disciples, who have seen him break bread at Emmaus or eat a piece of fish in the Upper Room, seen his wounded hands and feet and side.
But as usual with Jesus, it’s not just about himself. First, he speaks of his Father and the “promise” that the Father has made and will keep. Then, he addresses his friends, foreseeing their active role in this whole mystery. Just before being “lifted up,” he says :
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 (1 : 8).
The Father’s promise will be fulfilled in the coming of the Holy Spirit. And they will be his witnesses.
Jesus, now the risen Christ, has need of his disciples in a new way. They must witness to all that they have seen, heard, and understood, and the power of the Spirit will be given them to accomplish this work of testifying to the Truth.
Only a little while earlier his departure from them had seemed so impossible, so much a cause for grief and fear, but now, in the gospel account, we see something very different :
They did him homage
and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy,
and they were continually in the temple praising God (Lk 24 : 52-53).
No more fear and trembling ; the time has come for praise and joy. The gospel ends on that triumphant note.
In Acts, on the other hand, we see something beginning. Chapter One concludes with the disciples standing and looking up long after he is gone from their sight, and then receiving the encouragement of those two men in white – angels. Then we move at once to Pentecost in Acts 2, which tells us that they were all together in the Upper Room, but no longer in hiding as once they had been. It is thus that they receive the promise of God to which Jesus alluded. And that promise is the Holy Spirit, which impels them to go forth and witness to the Truth in ways that have left the whole world shaken and changed from that day to this.
So. To borrow another phrase from Acts : “What are we to do, brothers ? [and sisters] ?” (2:37) At the Ascension Jesus was certainly speaking directly to the disciples, but he was also speaking to us. What are we to do ? How will we witness to him through our words and our lives ? It’s the same old question, over and over and again. But should we be giving the same old answer ?
Of course, some of the answers we’ve been giving are still valid. But maybe they need to be renewed. And maybe there are new answers just waiting to be heard in the deep heart’s core. Heard and then acted on. As we continue reading Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, it looks as if Peter, John, James, Thomas and Philip, not to mention Paul and Lydia and Aquila and Prisca and all the others spent the rest of their lives discovering their own new answers day by day, experience by experience, joy by joy, trial by trial. How about our own “Acts” ? How do they read now ? How might they read in a year’s time ? Or even in forty days’ time ? May the Spirit give each of us the desire to seek answers to these questions. Amen.
Sr Nuala Cotter,
Worcester, United States of America