Scripture in Depth
(For Ascension Sunday; Scroll down for 7th Sunday of Easter)
First, let us remind ourselves that Ascension Day should not be thought of as a historical commemoration. The New Testament treats the ascension as an integral part of the Easter event.
In fact, the earlier Easter narratives depict the appearances as manifestations of the already risen and ascended One. Hence Paul could include his Damascus experience among the appearances in 1 Corinthians 15.
The later appearance narratives (Luke and John) show a tendency to separate the resurrection and the ascension, but still they are not regarded as two successive events. They are separated in order to contemplate the meaning of two aspects of a single, indivisible event.
When this separation occurs, the ascension seems to be variously located: in Lk 24, on Easter Sunday evening or, at the latest, the next day; in John 20, sometime between the appearance to Mary Magdalene (who is told not to touch the risen One because he has not yet ascended) and the appearance to Thomas (who is invited to touch him); in Acts 1, after the forty days (which, however, are symbolic of the time of revelation; there may be no intention to suggest that the ascension actually “occurred” on the fortieth day).
For several centuries the Church did not, either in its writings or in its liturgy, treat the ascension as though it actually “occurred” on the fortieth day.
With the revised Church calendar, we still keep it on the fortieth day as a matter of convenience (and that this is not an absolute rule is indicated by the rubrical permission to transfer the observance to the following Sunday).
This allows us to isolate for contemplation one aspect of the total Easter event.
Reading I: Acts 1:1-11
It is curious that in his two-volume work Luke tells the story of the ascension twice (Lk 24; Acts 1). Each narration brings out a different aspect of the truth.
The version in Acts looks forward to the future, to the inauguration of the Church’s mission and the final return of the ascending One. Luke’s perspective on salvation history represents an adjustment. Salvation history, already in the Old Testament , is constantly readjusted in the light of earlier events.
The earliest Church looked for only a brief interval between the ascension and the parousia, an interval that would be marked by the apostles’ mission to Israel and by persecution and martyrdom. Now salvation history is greatly extended. Paul already had modified it to include the mission to the Gentiles.
Now, for Luke, the Church is here to stay, with a mission to the whole civilized world. But the hope of the parousia is still maintained, and the Church’s mission is viewed as a preparation for the end.
Responsorial Psalm: 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
This is one of the enthronement psalms, which, according to some scholars, were sung at a (hypothetical) annual feast at which the king was enthroned to symbolize Yhwh’s kingship over his people.
As the king took his seat upon his earthly throne, the whole people would have chanted this psalm in celebration of the kingship of Yhwh. The Church in its liturgy has associated this psalm with, and transferred it to, the ascension of Christ.
Ascension Day is the feast of Christ’s enthronement, Henceforth God exercises his sovereignty over the universe through his exalted Son.
Reading II: Ephesians 1:17-23
Ephesians, whether written by Paul himself or, as now seems more likely, by a close disciple steeped in the thought of his master, begins, like most of Paul’s letters, with an opening thanksgiving and prayer. This prayer reproduces the pattern and phraseology of a liturgical hymn.
The first part of our passage prays for the Church’s growth in wisdom and knowledge, and looks to the risen and ascended Christ for the power to foster this growth. The hymn then goes on to elaborate on the exaltation and kingship of Christ.
The New Testament views Christ’s kingship as exercised in two concentric circles. The inner circle embraces the Church, where his kingship is known and acknowledged: the outer circle embraces the world, where he is de facto king but his kingship is as yet unrecognized (O. Cullmann). The Church’s function is to extend that inner circle to cover more and more of the outer one.
Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:19-23
Hebrews 9:24-28 continues the exposition of the high priestly work of Christ in terms of a series of contrasts with the Levitical priesthood. Here are the points made this time, some of them repeated from Hebrews 7:23-28, some of them new:
|a material sanctuary||the heavenly sanctuary, God's real presence|
|repeated offering (yearly)||once for all|
|offered blood of other creatures||offered his own blood|
The last sentence of verse 28 seeks to elucidate the once-for-all character of human death. The reference to the parousia comes rather surprisingly here, but it is probable that all through this passage the author has in mind the ceremony on the Day of Atonement.
After performing his priestly work in the Holy Place, the high priest came out of the temple and showed himself to the people, indicating thereby that the work of the atonement had been accomplished.
The parousia likewise will mark the completion of Christ’s high priestly work in heaven: “he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25) and “now to appear in he presence of God on our behalf” (Heb 9:24).
Hebrews 10:19-23 stands at the beginning of the last major section of the work. In it the author applies the theological argument of the previous section (Heb 7:1-10, 18) to Christian life. Note the oun (“therefore,” as in Rom 12:1 and Eph 4:1).
The first part of today’s reading can be regarded as a summary of the previous theological argument and as the basis for the ensuing parenesis.
The Christian life has its focus in the liturgy, in which we “draw near” to the presence of God by traversing the way that the ascending Christ has opened up through his sacrificial death (“through his blood”). We must enter that presence with confidence (because Christ has pioneered the way and also because of our baptism, Heb 10:22b).
When the author speaks of Christ entering through the veil (“Thou within the veil hast entered / Robed in flesh our great High Priest”—the words of this well-known hymn are based on Heb 10:20-21), he is drawing his imagery from the Levitical rite of the Day of Atonement, in which the high priest passed through the veil of the temple into the Holy of Holies.
Perhaps the author had in mind the passion narrative of the Gospels, which elsewhere he shows signs of knowing (for example, in Heb 5:7, with its echoes of the Gethsemane story).
The veil symbolizes the barrier between God and sinful humanity. But then the author curiously muddles the imagery by identifying the veil with the “flesh” of Jesus. Is the author treating the “flesh” as “the appointed means of approach” or as “the obstacle which hindered access” (Westcott)?
The former interpretation would involve taking “flesh” with “way”; the latter, taking “flesh” with “veil.” Both interpretations have patristic support, and modern commentators are divided. Whom should we follow?
On the one hand, the flesh of Jesus is always spoken of positively in Hebrews. He took our flesh in order to identify completely with us and to be qualified as our great high priest, and he took that flesh with him, now glorified, as he ascended into heaven.
On the other hand, the veil is something negative, the barrier between humanity and God. Accordingly, against many commentators, we would favor taking “flesh” with “way.” Our access to God is through the glorified humanity of the ascended Christ.
Succinctly expressed in the Sursum corda of the liturgy. As the Orthodox and Reformed traditions have in various ways reminded us, what happens in liturgy is not so much that Christ descends to earth, but that we ascend with him to heaven:
Mighty Lord, in thine ascension
We by faith behold our own.
(Christopher Wordsworth, Hymnal 1940, no. 103)
Gospel: Luke 24:46-53
This reading consists of two halves. The first half is Luke’s version of the appearance to the apostles, which, like the story of the ascension in Acts, looks forward to the mission of the Church, and to the empowering of the Church with the Spirit for that mission. In the second half, the ascension is narrated as in Acts 2.
In the Gospel the ascension narrative looks backward rather than forward. The ascension is here presented, not as the inauguration of the period of the Church—which it also is—but as the conclusion of the earthly ministry of Jesus.
It is a farewell scene, as is indicated by the blessing. Henceforth Christ will be with his followers in a new way. “Jesus is not seen at all times by the believers in this position: even for the disciples it came to an end” (Schlatter).
But unlike most partings, it leaves the disciples rejoicing—precisely because Jesus leaves them with his blessing. Such is the outcome and conclusion of his earthly ministry.
Reginald H. Fuller
**From Saint Louis University
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(For 7th Sunday of Easter)
Ascension Day no longer inaugurates a new season, nor does it have an octave.
The new name for the Sunday is yet another expression of what we have noted several times already, namely, that the fifty days are a continuous celebration of the Easter events, with different accentuations at different times.
But this Sunday still continues the theme of Ascension Day itself: the enthronement of Christ at the right hand of the Father.
Reading I: Acts 7:55-60
At the moment of his death, Stephen is granted a vision of heaven, with the Son of man “standing at the right hand of God.”
There are two unusual features here: (1) the use of the title “Son of man”—the only time it is used by anyone other than the earthly Jesus himself (Jn 12:34 is only a partial exception, for here the Jews are merely repeating Jesus’ own words. (2) Christ is described as standing rather than sitting at God’s right hand.
There is no universally accepted explanation of either of these features.
Perhaps the title “Son of man” is used here because it suggests that the exalted Christ is pleading the cause of his first martyr, in anticipation of his function as Son of man at the last judgment (Lk 12:8-9; Mk 8:38), and is standing in order to welcome his martyr to heaven.
In any case, Stephen’s martyrdom is an appropriate gospel for this day, as it gives a vision of the ascended Lord.
Responsorial Psalm: 97:1-2, 6-7, 9
This is another of the enthronement psalms. It is noteworthy that the earlier parts of the Old Testament do not deny the existence of other gods but assert that Yhwh is above them all (henotheism rather than monotheism).
Similarly, in the New Testament, Christ at his ascension triumphs over the demonic forces of evil (Phil 2:10). Demythologizing the language, we might say that God in Christ is above all false absolutes that people choose for themselves.
Reading II: Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20
This reading might seem more appropriate for Advent, and indeed this particular Sunday has always had about it something of an Advent character (see the old epistle, 1 Peter 4:7-11, with its exhortation to watchfulness in view of the impending end).
As we noted earlier, the fifty days originally included the Advent hope—it is because Christ has been exalted that we can hope for his coming again: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).
The experience of Easter is of such a quality that believers know that there is more to come: the kingship of Christ, now inaugurated but hidden, must finally triumph universally. The final words, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Marana tha) are from the earliest liturgy of the Church.
In the Eucharist the ascended Christ comes in anticipation of his final coming, and here he offers the thirsty the water of life without price.
Gospel: John 17:20-26
Traditionally the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper has been called “the high priestly prayer.” It represents not only what, according to the Fourth Gospel, was the substance of Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper, but also the prayer he continues to offer as the ascended high priest in heaven. It is a prayer “that all may be one.”
The unity for which he prays is not grounded on ecclesiastical joinery, for “it must not be supposed that the unity of the Church is to be attained by a long history of human endeavor” (EC Hoskyns). Rather, the unity of the Church is a unity based on the common sharing of word and sacraments, in which the act of God in Christ, the foundation of the Church’s unity, is made ever present.
The first half of this Sunday’s Gospel concerns the life of the Church on earth. Its unity is a unity for mission, a unity whose aim is that the world may believe “that thou hast sent me.”
The second half of the Gospel turns to the final destiny of the Church—what we traditionally call the Church Triumphant, but what John would rather call the Church Glorified.
Even if Bultmann were right in assigning all the passages in John that express a future eschatology to the hand of an ecclesiastical redactor (for example, Jn 5:28-29; 6:40), it is clear from this passage that John has not entirely eliminated the future consummation in favor of a realized eschatology.
There is a future destiny for the Church: “That they may be with me where I am, to behold my glory.”
This future element chimes in perfectly with the future hope of the second reading, written, according to tradition, by the same hand as this gospel, but in any case the product of a mind from the same theological school.
Reginald H. Fuller
**From Saint Louis University