FEAST OF THE ASCENSION
USCCB Link to all three readings
The eleven disciples went to Galilee,
to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.
When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.
Then Jesus approached and said to them,
"All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."
We are back with the narrative of St. Matthew’s Gospel, and the assigned reading for the Feast of the Ascension in Cycle A is the very conclusion of this Gospel book, a passage often referred to as “The Great Commissioning.” R.T. France makes the observation that Matthew has successfully brought together all of the important themes of his Gospel in this mountaintop summary. Curiously the final gathering of Jesus and his disciples here makes no mention of an “ascending.” Before looking closely at Matthew’s text, it might be helpful to make slight catechetical detour into what is meant by the term Ascension.
Every church bulletin, every front page of a Catholic newspaper, every church envelope, and every holy card devoted to this feast will feature a portrait of Jesus rising into the clouds. My early catechism depicted the feast in this fashion, too. There is some need for caution here. If we take the term “Ascension” literally as an upward departure, we run the risk of turning the full meaning of this feast into a utilitarian exercise: how did Jesus get from point A (earth) to point B, the right hand of the Father in glory, presumably heaven?
The term “Ascension” actually describes the post-crucifixion role of Jesus. First and foremost, the Gospels agree that the Father’s role in raising Jesus from the dead is continuous with Jesus’ divine enthronement at the Father’s right hand as divine ruler in eternal glory. Sunday is a feast of the Glory of the Christ, an observance that marks the present and future glory of Jesus. The feast also tends to the question of how we stay in communion with Jesus, Son of the Father. In Matthew’s text, Jesus promises to be with his disciples—and those who will be baptized in the future— “until the end of the age.” The Gospel writers tend to these realities in a variety of ways; it is only St. Luke who uses the visual metaphor of rising into the clouds; his description serves as Sunday’s first reading.
Matthew’s full Gospel has depicted Jesus as the new Moses who has come to bring the Law and the Prophets to fulfillment. In Sunday’s Gospel, he ties together the Jewishness of Jesus with a new sense of universal salvation. France points out that for much of the Gospel the action has moved north [Galilee] to south [Jerusalem]. In the post-Resurrection narrative Matthew has the action moving from south to north again; Jesus has told the women in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday that he will meet with the Eleven not in Jerusalem but back north in the rural mountain country of Galilee, where his ministry began. The “Jesus event” has run its evangelical course back to its roots; how fitting that Galilee will mark the beginning of the apostolic venture.
France’s commentary indicates that the eleven are meeting Jesus in his full enthronement as the divine God. Hence the Ascension/glorification has already taken place. As Matthew writes, “When they saw him, they worshipped….” In the Old and the New Testament lexicon, one pays worship only to the divine. That said, the evangelist notes how “they doubted.” The NABRE translation, used in the Mass, translates the line to indicate that “they [all] doubted.” Luke and John indicate that some doubted (in John, famously, the Apostle Thomas). France’s own translation suggests that a portion doubted. The term “doubted” has multiple meanings: The Gospels agree that Jesus was “changed” by his Resurrection/glorification, perhaps akin to the Transfiguration when Peter, James, and John came more than slightly unhinged when enveloped in the divine cloud.
It is also true that the gathering described here is the first reunion of Jesus and the Eleven after their mass betrayal on Holy Thursday night, and some may have wondered how Jesus would react to them. France is technical on the Greek rendering of “doubt;” “it denotes not intellectual doubt as much as practical uncertainty.” [France, p. 1111] Jesus’ presence alone is enough to convey forgiveness for the disciples’ earlier weaknesses. He proceeds to identify himself as the One to whom all power in heaven and earth has been given—a divine identification. Matthew borrows language from the Prophet Daniel, who describes the glorious apocalyptic appearance of the Son of Man in roughly the same way; what Matthew implies here is that the future is now, and the disciples will be the ones to gather the faithful into the glory of God’s kingdom. It is worth noting that Jesus’ claim to dominion over heaven and earth is much stronger than the devil’s offer of all the kingdoms of the earth at the time of temptation in the desert.
Jesus draws the Eleven together for a major instruction: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations….” Matthew here borrows Old Testament language to describe God’s commissioning for future mission, notably addressed to Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Jesus here speaks to the disciples as the Father has done in Old Testament times, another indication of Jesus’ divinity and identity with the Father. Moreover, the instruction of Jesus includes the call to “make disciples” who, like the holy ones mentioned above, will be consecrated for specific mission
The command to baptize in the three-fold identity of God is, of course, yet another indication of Jesus’ identity in the Trinity as sharing the life and substance. The command is extended to all the nations, not exclusively Israel, though the Jews are not specifically excluded, either. The universality of the Gospel message took some time for the early Church to absorb, as is seen in the Acts of the Apostles, where Paul had to convince the disciples of the need to baptize Gentiles without Jewish initiation and circumcision.
It is fitting that the last line of this Gospel depicts Jesus’ promise to be with the disciples and their communities until the end of the age. Way back in Matthew 1:23 Joseph is instructed by an angel in a dream to take Mary as his wife. The angel names their future child Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” Matthew thus begins and ends his Gospel