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The Ascension

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Readings: Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 46, Ephesians 1:17-23, Matthew 28:16-20.

This Sunday, in England at least, we celebrate the feast of the Ascension. Interestingly, the lectionary gives us the final paragraph of Matthew as our gospel reading. In what is known as the 'great commission' Jesus commands his disciples to go and "make disciples of all the nations", and assures them that he is with them "always, to the close of the age" (Matt 28: 19-20), and here Matthew's gospel ends. There is no mention here of Jesus ascending.

Instead we have to turn to our first reading from the beginning of the book of Acts for the Ascension narrative. Acts ought to be read as the second volume of the gospel of Luke and has often been described as the 'gospel of the Holy Spirit'. In Acts, St. Luke tells the story of the early Church and its spread from Jerusalem through the Gentile world, finally reaching the very heart of pagansim and the empire: Rome. In relating this history St. Luke wants to emphasise two points: first, that the success of this mission was the fruit of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit; and second, that the Church itself is the body of Christ.

For St. Luke, then, the great commission that we hear in Matthew's gospel is dependent on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit related in Acts at Pentecost, the great feast that we celebrate next Sunday. What then has all this to do with the Ascension? St. Luke has emphasised the Ascension, describing the event twice, both at the end of his gospel and at the beginning of Acts, in order to highlight the connection between Jesus, the Spirit, and the Church. Just as Elijah in the book of Kings passed on a double portion of his spirit to Elisha as he ascended into heaven riding a chariot of fire, so Jesus breathed his Spirit in the form of fire upon the apostles. After receiving the spirit of Elijah, Elisha became a great prophet and miracle worker. The apostles were similarly empowered by the Spirit of Christ. Whilst, after his Ascension, the apostles no longer saw Christ, he was in his Spirit closer to these disciples than he had ever been on earth. The fruit of this indwelling of Christ was a share in the divine life, and the power to share this gift with others so that Christ may be known even to our own day.

Nicholas Crowe OP


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