The celebration of the Ascension of our Lord occurs distinctively this year, when the two most detailed descriptions of the event, both written by Luke the evangelist, are brought together in today’s readings. We hear both the concluding verses from Luke’s Gospel, the first volume of his work, and the first verses of Acts, his second volume. For Luke, the Ascension is the hinge of his two-volume work. The evangelist apparently thought the story of the Ascension was important enough to tell twice.
While his first telling emphasizes the meaning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the second telling shifts to how the community of his followers are commissioned to continue this same ministry. Now the apostles, and by implication all who follow Jesus, will bring healing and hope to a world that desperately needs them. Luke reminds us that we the Church are also summoned by Jesus to participate in his work.
Appreciating the Ascension within the larger story of Jesus can be difficult. This is partly because of the mystical features of Luke’s two descriptions, and also the lack of description in the other Gospels. The Ascension describes both the absence and the presence of Jesus. Why did Jesus have to leave? As Jesus told his disciples, his departure makes possible his continuing presence in a new way, through the work of the Spirit beginning at Pentecost.
The Ascension is more than a departure, for it describes how the bodily, human Jesus is now “at the right hand of God,” and that the Father exalts Jesus as Lord of heaven and earth. We need to hold these two together: that Jesus knows our human trials and joys and walks compassionately with us; and Jesus also is our Lord, who pushes us out of our comfort zones toward Christian maturity, and holds us accountable.
In the descriptions of the Ascension in today’s readings, Jesus tells the disciples “You are witnesses” or “you will be my witnesses.” The image of witness evokes a legal proceeding, where a person affirms the truth of an event. Sometimes physical evidence, such as a DNA test, serves as witness to the truth. This same word is used again and again in Acts, as the apostles witnessed to the Resurrection, or to the whole story of Jesus. We are called to witness the truth of the Gospel.
We might witness in at least three ways. In dialogue with others, we can speak the witness, by explicitly sharing the biblical story and what it means for us. We can do the witness, by aligning our actions and lifestyle so as to share love for others. We can be the witness, in our fundamental openness and faithful response to God, and in our grace-filled personal presence with others. We are the best evidence of the truths of our faith.BACK TO LIST