by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down upon you; then you are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, yes, even to the ends of the earth.” No sooner had he said this than he was lifted up before their eyes in a cloud which took him from their sight. Acts 1, 1-11
Just imagine how things might have turned out if those first disciples had been required to undergo a modern-day risk assessment as a pre-condition to their being accepted as witnesses to Jesus’ life and Gospel. Yet, despite the frustrations and disappoints they had caused him, Jesus trusted that, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, these same disciples would measure up, eventually, to the commission which he entrusted to them. Jesus was confident that, inspired by the Holy Spirit, they would find what they needed to stand on their own feet and develop the courage and confidence required to testify to God’s love for the world, the love which permeated all that he had said and done in his life. To prepare themselves for an experience the intensity of which was beyond their wildest imagination, Jesus instructed them to stay together in the city and wait “for the fulfilment of my Father’s promise…for baptism with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1, 4-5). Prayerful though that waiting period was, they could not have anticipated the manner in which God’s Spirit came upon them and changed their lives forever.
Scripture scholars have repeatedly reminded us that Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles were written by the same person. Acts is a sequel to, or the second volume of, Luke’s Gospel. The link between the two is that the Gospel concludes with an account of Jesus’ ascension to the Father and Acts opens with a fuller description of the same event. I suspect that Luke was doing more than reminding his community of the way in which he had concluded his gospel. While he has drawn a parallel between the way in which Jesus prepared for his public ministry and the way in which he went about preparing the disciples for theirs, I suspect he had something else in mind. But first, let’s note the parallel preparations. In his Gospel, Luke tells how Jesus prepared for his ministry of teaching, preaching and healing with a forty-day period of prayer and fasting in the wilderness. In the very first chapter of Acts, he relates how Jesus had spent forty days from the day of his resurrection, reinforcing for his followers the fact that he had really risen and revising with them all he had taught them when they accompanied him in his public ministry.
But why did Luke conclude his gospel with an account of Jesus’ ascension and then give a different account of that event at the beginning of Acts? True, it was a way of linking the two books. I suggest that the story is repeated because it heralds the transition from Jesus’ time to the time of his disciples with the mandate and responsibility to continue what he had initiated. This was the birth of the Christian community, the community to which we now belong and in which we have a role and responsibility. To highlight the need for urgent action, Luke describes how two angels were on hand to call the disciples out of the mix of grief, loss and wonderment that had left them stunned and gazing up into the heavens. In effect, the angels said to the disciples: “Snap out of it! There’s work to be done, and it’s for you to go and do it!” cf Acts 1, 11. Putting it another way, we could say that the final chapter of Luke’s gospel marks the conclusion of Jesus’ mission as the Messiah while the first chapter of Acts ushers in the mission of the community that would keep Jesus present to the world.
If we care to look closely at Luke’s two accounts of Jesus’ ascension, we will discover that there is embedded in them material for our own reflection on loss and death. The account in Acts echoes the story of Elijah’s ascension into heaven described in the Second Book of Kings (2 Kings 2, 1-16). As Elijah waited in anticipation to be taken up to heaven in the whirlwind, his disciple Elisha prayed for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. And when he picked up Elijah’s mantle, he received an overwhelming experience of God’s Spirit. Similarly, Jesus promised his disciples that they would be given God’s Spirit to comfort them. So, when they elected to follow him, metaphorically picking up his mantle, they were blessed with a completely overwhelming experience of God’s Spirit.
There is also here a story of love. Our experiences of the death of people we have known and loved have shown us that absence does not extinguish the love that has grown between us. We have cherished memories of that love to keep nourishing us. And God’s Spirit continues to live in our hearts; God’s Spirit is present in the depths of our being. Embedded in these ascension stories is the Christian attitude to death. They leave us with the knowledge that Jesus has gone from among us. He had spent time convincing his disciples that he had risen from the grave. His ascension was a second rising, not from the grave but from the earth, to his abode in heaven. That he still lives confirms our belief that our departed loved ones are also still alive, and that we, too, will live in a different way following our death.
In his gospel account of Jesus’ ascension, Luke notes that Jesus walked with his disciples “as far as Bethany”. That detail is significant because that’s where his dear friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived, and that’s where he raised Lazarus to life – an appropriate place for him to spend his last moments on earth.
Ultimately, the event of Jesus’ ascension is about transition and change. Jesus had spent his life showing us that God’s love for us and our world is limitless and unconditional. He commissioned all who would be his disciples to reflect God’s love to everyone we encounter. To do that, we have to be ever open to growth, to change, to transition as we adapt to meet the ever-changing people we encounter. The words which Jesus directed to his disciples just before he left this earth have also been directed to all of us who have succeeded those disciples. We, too, are called to be witnesses to the love of God for humankind, to bring healing encouragement and compassion to our sisters and brothers whom we will encounter until the day when our turn comes to transition to the life that awaits us beyond the grave.