The first reading for Ascension Day, which we celebrate on Sunday May 13, tells the story of Jesus’ disappearance into the skies as his apostles watched. Act’s author, Luke, also wrote the gospel which bears his name. It is the first book to which he refers in the opening sentence.
The reading begins with an introduction addressing a person: In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.
The name, Theophilus, may be an individual, perhaps a sponsor, but the name itself means ‘God lover’ or ‘beloved of God’ so it may be addressed to anyone who loves God.
The phrase, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles, is ambiguous. It could mean that through the power of the Holy Spirit and reflection the apostles may have come to understand Jesus’ words and instruction in a new light. In this case Jesus would not have been present.
On the other hand it could mean that, in the period between his resurrection and ascension, Jesus and the Holy Spirit worked together to give the apostles insight into the meaning of Jesus’ life and words. In either interpretation the Holy Spirit was already present, at least in some way before Pentecost.
Following this brief introduction, Luke then summarizes Jesus’ death and post-resurrection period with them in a few words. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
The forty days reference is probably symbolic rather than a specific number. It corresponds with Jesus’ forty days in the desert after his baptism, with the rains that fell at the time of Noah (Genesis 7:12), with Moses’ forty days on the mountain with God (Exodus 34:28, Deut. 9:11) and with Elijah’s forty days fleeing Jezebel toward Mt. Horeb in 1 Kings 19:8. Forty daysis a period that marks a great transition.
The story continues. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
The promise of baptism by the Holy Spirit became a central part of Jesus’ instruction during this post-resurrection period. He did not repeat it, but as we shall see next week the message clearly hit home. It would give the apostles drive, direction, discipline and consolidation of Jesus’ message.
But until the Spirit came they still could not understand..despite the work of the Holy Spirit during the prior 40 days. When they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They were looking for an earthly kingdom.
He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus told them that the Holy Spirit would change their thinking. Instead of focusing on the coming of the kingdom they would be his witnesses. Their work would be to spread the good news of salvation though Jesus Christ. The question of when the kingdom would come would fade but not disappear. Their attention would shift.
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
As with the day of resurrection suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified …but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. (Luke 24:3-5) When Jesus was born, raised and ascended, angels appeared to confirm the wonder.
When Jesus departed he left a trail of questions behind. Aside from the most obvious…’Where did he go? Will he return? When?’ … The disciples were left to wonder what they were to do next? They would have asked themselves how the promised arrival of the Holy Sprit would make their lives different. They wondered, probably for the thousandth time, what Jesus’ life meant.
Some of these same questions still resonate with us today.
- How will the Holy Spirit work in us?
- How do we internalize and incorporate the instructions that Jesus left?
- What is the meaning of Jesus’ life to us today?