Sunday, May 20, 2012

Year B Solemnity of the Ascension

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3.6-9; Eph. 1:17-23; Mark 16:15-20

On this Seventh Sunday of Easter we are celebrating the Solemnity of the Ascension of our Lord, Jesus Christ, which is ordinarily and by ancient tradition celebrated forty days after Easter, meaning it always falls on a Thursday. We learn from our reading of the Acts of the Apostles that during the time between Christ’s resurrection and ascension into heaven that He appeared to the apostles “during forty days” and spoke to them “about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3), teaching them the doctrines of the kingdom. What Jesus taught the apostles between the time of His resurrection and ascension is traditionally known as The Gospel of the Forty Days.

The Gospel of the Forty Days is important because as the fathers of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council stated clearly in their Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, “there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture” (par. 9). They went on to note that both Sacred Scripture and sacred tradition flow “from the same divine wellspring” and “merge into a unity and tend toward the same end” (par. 9), namely making known the Lordship of Jesus Christ, in and through whom the Father revealed all there is to reveal. We consider the writings that comprise the Bible to be Sacred Scripture because each one was written “under the inspiration of the [Holy] Spirit” (par. 9). Sacred tradition works in a slightly different way; by handing on “the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles” and their successors “in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known” (par. 9). The English word “tradition” comes from the Latin noun traditio, which, in turn, derives from the verb tradere, which means to hand over, to give for safekeeping. So, our English word “tradition” can be used as both a noun and a verb referring both to what is handed on as well as the act of handing on.

The Gospel of the Forty Days constitutes the foundation of sacred tradition. The fathers of the Council of Chalcedon, which was the fourth ecumenical council, held in 451 AD, whose main contribution was the dogmatic definition of what we call the hypostatic union, that is, the uniting of two natures, one human and one divine, in the single person of Jesus Christ, in their concluding statement of faith, made the claim that everything the council taught came from a single authority: “the Holy Scriptures as Christ had interpreted and fulfilled them according to tradition” (Pelikan, Acts 38). Just as Jewish tradition holds that there was an oral Torah given to Moses during his forty days on Mount Sinai alongside the written Torah, Christian tradition has constantly held that what Jesus taught the apostles during these forty days is an oral Gospel, alongside the written Gospels (Pelikan 38). As we look forward to our celebration of Pentecost next Sunday, let’s not forget that Pentecost was and remains a Jewish Festival that celebrates Moses receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Because the Acts of the Apostles is a follow-on to St. Luke’s Gospel, we can see that Christ’s post-resurrection instruction began on the road to Emmaus, when, before making Himself known in the breaking of the bread, He instructed the two distraught disciples, interpreting “to them what referred to him in all the scriptures… beginning with Moses and all the prophets” (Luke 24:27).

A part of the Gospel also included in our first reading today, an aspect we must not neglect, even though it is often dealt with in various silly ways, something we must believe with divine and catholic faith, is our conviction and hope that Jesus Christ will return in glory. As the apostles stood looking up as Christ ascended, the angels said to them, “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Hence, being a Christian does not consist of standing there dumbstruck looking up to heaven, but calls us to full engagement in the world, making way for God’s kingdom by seeking to bring it about “as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ” (Roman Missal).

This brings us to our Gospel, which is St. Mark’s version of the Great Commission, wherein Jesus tells His disciples, “go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). The Lord then makes it clear to them that this is a matter of life and death, a matter of the utmost urgency, meaning nothing is more important (Mark 16:16). I recently saw the results of a poll that indicated only 38% of Catholics in the United States believe they have a duty to share their faith. My brothers and sisters, this means that 62% of us don’t grasp what our Lord commanded, what Pope Benedict XVI has said repeatedly, reiterating something emphasized by two other very evangelical popes, Paul VI and John Paul II, that the Church is missionary by her very nature and will be until Christ returns. So, if you are a baptized believer, you are part of the Church’s mission, meaning you are a missionary. It’s striking, especially in light of the angels’ exhortation to the apostles in Acts, that after relating that Jesus “was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19), the sacred author begins his next sentence with the disjunction “But.”- “But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs” (Mark 16:20). Of course, the Lord worked with them and confirmed what they taught by accompanying signs by the power of the Holy Spirit, which descended upon them at Pentecost.

1 comment:

  1. When I think of the Gospel of the Forty Days and the instruction of our Lord, I think of the way in which the Lord turned around the disciples running away to Emmaus.