Disciples become witnesses for others
The Ascension connects Jesus' earthly ministry with the Holy Spirit
May 23, 2004 -- The Ascension of the Lord
By Fr. Richard Ver Bust
The feast of the Ascension helps us to reflect on the meaning of the resurrection and celebrate the exaltation of Jesus. God raised Jesus from the dead, scripture says, but we know that it was not to continue this life. As Paul so aptly quoted from an early Christian hymn in his letter to the Philippians, "God now has exalted him so that all creation might recognize him as Lord to the glory of God the Father."
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke continues the story of salvation history. He again mentions Theophilus, as he had in the Gospel, and makes the connection between the Gospel and Acts. He links both the earthly ministry of Jesus and the ministry of the church with the work of the Holy Spirit whom he tells us Jesus gave to them after giving instructions.
Luke describes the time of the risen Lord as being a period of 40 days during which Jesus both appeared to the disciples and spoke once more about the kingdom of God. The author seems to restrict these appearances to the apostles but in other accounts there seems to be a larger group of followers who saw him. The number, 40 days, seems to be symbolic for it is the same time that Jesus fasted in the desert, Moses received instructions on the law from God, and Elijah journeyed to Mt. Sinai. So it may be a way in which Luke ties together the earlier history of Israel and the history of Jesus. For Luke, Jesus is the new Israel. Jerusalem will be the city from which the new Israel, the church, the body of Christ, will go forth to preach the message of salvation. The disciples are commissioned to become witnesses of Jesus to the ends of the earth. This will be the ever-widening circle of their ministry and they will baptize those who accept their message not only with water but also with the Holy Spirit as John the Baptist had said.
The disciples would not be alone for they will have the power of the Spirit to guide them. With that accomplished, Luke paints a picture in which the true presence of God is stressed. The cloud is that traditional symbol of God's presence. As in the story of the resurrection when two men at the tomb announced that Jesus had risen, they now interpret the ascension.
The gospel is the short version of the ascension. The author tells how Jesus in a final way instructed his disciples. It begins with how they may look back and realize how the previous history of Israel should be understood as leading to what they now believe. The disciples were eyewitnesses of Jesus' life and ministry and now they would become witnesses for others. The word used here in Greek is martyrs, which many of them would become by giving up their lives. They were to proclaim that all might be saved, receiving a forgiveness of their sins.
So this feast is transitional bringing together the exaltation or enthronement of Christ in heaven and the work of the church on earth. In a few days we will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost or the coming of the Spirit whom Christ had promised to send. Then we are empowered to be those true witnesses or martyrs of Christ.
(The late Fr. Ver Bust directed the master's program in theology at St. Norbert
College, De Pere.)