Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord - 9 May 2013
St. Luke 24:44-53
Background: The Feast of the Ascension
Celebrated forty days following Easter, this feast actually might be quite ancient. The first mention of the feast is made in the fifth century, and it is mentioned by St. Augustine as a feast of “apostolic” origin. Egeria mentions the feast in her writings from the mid-fourth century, and comments on a vigil as well. She witnessed the ceremonial in Bethlehem. There is some evidence that this feast was connected either with the Easter Feast itself, or with Pentecost (which would account for the Vigil). The Council of Elvira (ca. 300 CE) condemned the practice of the feast in that it was being confused with the Pentecost feast.
There are customs that are related to the Ascension feast, namely the observance of Rogation Days in which the fields of farms were blest, or the early produce (first fruits) were blessed. An English festival related to the Rogation procession and blessings was the “Beating of the Bounds” in which the members of a parish would mark the bounds of the parish by hitting the stones marking the boundary with sticks. Other interesting customs were the extinguishing of the Paschal Candle following the reading of the Gospel on Ascension Day. An unusual custom was that deacons and sub deacons at the mass would wear miters (the miter symbolizing the tongues of flame at Pentecost).
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. "This," he said, "is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."
So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
In Acts, Luke takes a different tack on the chronology of the Easter and Ascension events. In the Gospel (Saint Luke 24), the events of Easter come in quick succession – The resurrection and the women, Emmaus, the appearance to the disciples, and the ascension. In Acts, however, Luke expands this chronology to a period of forty days, a number of considerable significance in Biblical literature. The ascension is placed at some distance from the Easter event, and in proximity to the Pentecost experience. Luke notes that Jesus schools the disciples (now apostles) “through the Holy Spirit”. Jesus comments on the kingdom of God occasion questions from his disciples about times and seasons, which Jesus essentially ignores, refocusing their vision on an anticipation of the gift of the Holy Spirit and dismissing any political agenda. Luke thus images these disciples (and other followers?) as a new Israel, making their journey through a desert of impending absence.
There is a sense of place, indeed mission, in Jesus’ words as he describes the destinations that the Gospel should reach: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria (a sign of the ministry to Gentiles), and the “ends of the earth” (either Rome, or Spain). All is explained in this second account of the Ascension, and there are reminders of its connection to the Easter event. Two “men in white robes” (cf. Luke’s description of the resurrection) explain all that there is to know, redirecting them by their means of address “Men of Galilee”, and advising them to anticipate another visitation. Luke prepares a wonderful stage for Peter and the others as they gather in Jerusalem for Pentecost.
Breaking open Acts:
- What differentiates resurrection, ascension, or Pentecost?
- How do you understand the differences from the Gospel of Luke and the scene as portrayed in Acts.
- What are the “ends of the earth” now?
Psalm 47 Omnes gentes, plaudite
Clap your hands, all you peoples; *
shout to God with a cry of joy.
For the LORD Most High is to be feared; *
he is the great King over all the earth.
He subdues the peoples under us, *
and the nations under our feet.
He chooses our inheritance for us, *
the pride of Jacob whom he loves.
God has gone up with a shout, *
the LORD with the sound of the ram's-horn.
Sing praises to God, sing praises; *
sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is King of all the earth; *
sing praises with all your skill.
God reigns over the nations; *
God sits upon his holy throne.
The nobles of the peoples have gathered together *
with the people of the God of Abraham.
The rulers of the earth belong to God, *
and he is highly exalted.
There is an implicit universalism in this praise psalm in which “all you peoples” and “the princes of the peoples” “assemble with the people of the God of Abraham.” Certainly a sense of nationalism is still echoed here – with the Israelite God being seen as a “king over all the earth.” Verse three still sees God as the one “who subdues the peoples under us.” The spiritual vision, however, extends beyond cultural and national boundaries, seeing God in a more cosmic role. Of interest to Christians are verses five and six, the glories of which have been assigned to Christ. A Hebrew understanding of this figure might see the Most High returning to Mount Zion, from which the great God rules over all the earth. In an astute political vision, the psalmist sees all government (the rulers of the earth) as the possession of God.
Breaking open Psalm 47
- How do you understand universalism and Christianity?
- Is the God of Jesus seen as a national God in your country.
- How does God rule in the world?
Psalm 93 Dominus regnavit
The LORD is King;
he has put on splendid apparel; *
the LORD has put on his apparel
and girded himself with strength.
He has made the whole world so sure *
that it cannot be moved;
Ever since the world began, your throne has been established; *
you are from everlasting.
The waters have lifted up, O LORD,
the waters have lifted up their voice; *
the waters have lifted up their pounding waves.
Mightier than the sound of many waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea, *
mightier is the LORD who dwells on high.
Your testimonies are very sure, *
and holiness adorns your house, O LORD,
for ever and for evermore.
This psalm is an example of an enthronement psalm that celebrated the kingship of God, or of God’s anointed (David). This is an example of a cultural borrowing of an ancient near eastern tradition (the New Year festival) in which political kingship was dramatically connected to the kingship of the gods. The king/god would ascend the ziggurat and there consummate an intimate union with the goddess (the high priestess). Such fertility practices are absent in the adaptations of Israel, but the shadow is still there. Another ancient near eastern connection are the extensive comments on the triumph over chaos, beginning with the phrases in verse two (he has made the world so sure). What follows after the following verse is a recitation of God’s power over the “waters” which represent chaos and death. It is God, seen in the kingship of David, who rules over the cosmos. The final verse (“holiness adorns your house”) may tie these verses to a temple liturgy.
Breaking open Psalm 93:
- How do monarchial images in the Hebrew Scriptures strike you?
- What do you find interesting about the equation of the “sea” and “death”?
- Does chaos rule our times?
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
It is verse twenty (“raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens”) which ties this reading to the Feast of the Ascension.
Here in the rhetoric of thanksgiving and prayer, St. Paul begins with a vision of the glorified Christ, who has been exalted by “the Father of glory”, which father is bidden to bless the readers of the letter. Paul creates a point of understanding with the word “hope”. What is it for which the people of the Church at Ephesus must hope? What is the “glorious inheritance”? The hope is to see in Jesus God’s power made manifest – in the resurrection, and the exaltation to the right hand of God. The scope of this exaltation is seen in Jesus’ suasion over “all rule and authority and power and dominion”. In contrast to his writing in I Corinthians and Romans where Paul identifies the Christian community as “the body of Christ”, here Christ is seen as “the head” and “the fullness”.
Breaking open Ephesians:
- What does “hope” mean to you? Where do you find hope?
- How is Jesus the “head of the Church” in reality?
- How would you describe the Body of Christ?
St. Luke 24:44-53
Jesus said to his disciples, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-- that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
I have made comments on this reading in the commentary on the lesson from Acts. You may want to refer back to them. For Luke the resurrection/ascension is no metaphor, but a new reality. The two preceding verses inform us of his intent and viewpoint, “They gave him a piece of backed fish; he took it and ate it in front of them.” What follows then is a brief instruction, really and call to remembrance of what Jesus had already told them. The whole of salvation history is appealed to, reminding them that he had been written about in “the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and the psalms.” His opening of their minds (just like Emmaus) is in sentiment similar to Jesus’ “breathing” on the disciples in John 20:22. Then the plan of salvation is laid out for them, and a similar expectation, as in Acts, about the mission beginning in Jerusalem. There are no two men at this version of the Ascension, but rather an immediate reaction – the disciples return to Jerusalem with joy.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- What do you understand the Resurrection/Ascension to be?
- What does Jesus want the disciple to be following his absence? What do you think Jesus wants you to be?
- How do you reconcile the difference in Luke’s two accounts?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.