ColumnsSunday’s Word

Jesus ascends before his disciples

May 24 2020


Acts 1:1–1

Jesus ascends before his disciples

Psalm 47:2-3, 6-9

God mount his throne to shouts of joy

Ephesians 1:17-23

Seating him at his right hand in the heavens

Matthew 28:16-20

Luke recounts the Ascension


It may be more than a coincidence that the scripture readings chosen for the feast of Ascension are from either the beginning or end of the biblical books involved. The feast celebrates a moment between times, in the hinge between two panels. The gospel story of Jesus is over and the time of the church, as in Acts of the Apostles, is about to begin.

Luke, the author of Acts, is never one to waste an chance to have a story work overtime. Here too, in his account of the Ascension, that is apparent. One meaning is that the time of resurrection appearances of the Risen Christ have come to an end. When we compare his similar account, at the end of his Gospel (Luke 24:50-53), we read nothing about forty days. That is provided by Acts. This book has given us the forty days for Ascension, and fifty for Pentecost. Luke allows exceptions, of course, since Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ will occur later on (Acts 9).

The other meaning of the event is theological. The Son returns to the Father. This aspect is the theme of the reading from Ephesians. The Lord Jesus ascends to his throne on high, with God “raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come.”

While the account in Acts naturally plays off against the Lukan gospel account, this year we do not have Luke’s gospel but rather that of Matthew. Matthew does not speak of an Ascension, but he does tell us about disciples gathered on the mountain after the resurrection, and sent forth.

Here the emphasis is different. In Matthew’s gospel, the personal mission of Jesus is specifically said to be to the tribes of Israel, the Jewish people (Matt 10:5; 15:24). But at the very end of the account, now that the gospel story is over, the focus and direction change. They are now to turn to the Gentiles, the wider world beyond Judaism—“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.”

The passage is notable as the source for our liturgy of baptism, as well as the sign of the cross. But it also brings out a less apparent theme in today’s liturgy. For another dimension of the letter to the Ephesians is its focus on the mission to the Gentiles. Where elsewhere in Paul’s writing the great mystery revealed is the turning point in time that is founding he coming of Jesus the Christ, that idea gets a bit of a twist in Ephesians. Here the great mystery now revealed is that the Gentiles are invited into the story of salvation (Eph 2:11-13; 3:3-7). This is the great surprise.

And with that, we realize that the words in today’s second reading are addressed to those same Gentiles in the Ephesian church. And when the letter says of Christ that God, the Father of Glory, has put all things beneath his feet, that includes the worldwide rule of the Roman Empire. That message too is a part of the mission to the world.

So there is another dimension to the feast of Ascension this year, as the themes of moving beyond the Easter appearances and the return of the Son to the Father are joined by that of the mission to the world.

For reflection: We are always in “between times,” maybe now more than ever. These days can give us special insights into the inspired writing of Scripture.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.