NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: Acts 1: 1-11
THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
In the first book, Theophilus,
I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught
until the day he was taken up,
after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit
to the apostles whom he had chosen.
He presented himself alive to them
by many proofs after he had suffered,
appearing to them during forty days
and speaking about the kingdom of God.
While meeting with them,
he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem,
but to wait for "the promise of the Father
about which you have heard me speak;
for John baptized with water,
but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."
When they had gathered together they asked him,
"Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"
He answered them, "It is not for you to know the times or seasons
that the Father has established by his own authority.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth."
When he had said this, as they were looking on,
he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.
While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going,
suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.
They said, "Men of Galilee,
why are you standing there looking at the sky?
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."
The Ascension of the Lord was originally celebrated with Pentecost. The early Church understood the unity of Christ’s last supper, death, resurrection, ascension, and gift of the Spirit as a unique and united event in history. The liturgies of the season we call Easter drew from these four five acts of the salvation drama. The Gospels, particularly John, emphasize this unity in a number of ways. John describes a Pentecost event at the moment of Christ’s death on Good Friday, when he “handed over his spirit” to those at the foot of the cross, namely his mother and disciple, i.e. his church.
While the Eastern Church maintained a consciousness of this unity, the Roman West divided the Easter Season into a series of stand-alone events, most notably the feasts of Ascension and Pentecost. This may be due to Sunday’s first reading from the opening of the Book of Acts, where Luke writes of Jesus “appearing to [the disciples] during forty days.” The term “40” in both the Old and New Testaments is shorthand for “a period of time.” There is no way to know how long Jesus remained with the disciples or when he ascended into heaven. Luke and John themselves differ on the time. Luke places the Ascension at forty days after the Resurrection, but John, on Easter Sunday morning, tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him, “for I have not yet ascended to my Father.” He commands her to tell the disciples that he is going to his Father. That very night, however, Jesus appears to the disciples and allows them to venerate his wounds. Regardless of the details, the Feast of the Ascension is sacred as the time when Jesus returns to his Father in glory after rendering his act of perfect obedience upon the cross. The preaching of this event in apostolic times as well as today establishes the Father’s words to the crowd at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved son; listen to him.” Those who professed faith in the Resurrection were comforted and exhilarated at the thought that their unity in Christ in baptism meant that they, too, would take their place in the heavens.
Sunday’s reading is the opening of Acts and makes clear that St. Luke envisioned his Gospel and the Acts of Apostles as a “boxed set,” so to speak. Luke describes the post-Resurrection days as a time of intense instruction through the Holy Spirit during which Jesus elaborated on the Kingdom of God. Luke speaks of multiple appearances by Jesus and “many proofs” that he was alive after his suffering. All the Gospels allude to hesitation and difficulties by the disciples in believing that Jesus had risen from the dead. St. Mark, in the original Greek, states that Jesus “excoriated” his followers for their lack of faith in 16:14.
The synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark, Luke] and the Acts of the Apostles agree that at some distinct time Jesus “left” them in a fashion that reflects divine glory. In Sunday’s reading Luke describes Jesus ascending upward until a cloud took him from their sight. The term “cloud” has divine overtones in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. In Exodus 19 God tells Moses that “I am coming to you in a dense cloud, so that when the people hear me speaking with you, they may always have faith in you also.” Before his death Jesus would take Peter, James, and John to a mountaintop where they were enveloped in a cloud, from which the voice of God came forth: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
The Ascension, then, serves as the final seal of God’s love and total acceptance of the mission of his Son, and Jesus’ return to the glory that was his from the beginning. The commentary of the two men dressed in white garments reminds the disciples that they are not simply witnesses to the divine glory, but  participants in the glory of a Christ present but yet to return at the end of time, and  designated prophets to announce this good news to the end of the earth.