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Scripture In Depth
Ascension /
May 13, or May 16, 2021
Reginald H. Fuller

First, let us remind ourselves that Ascension Day should not be thought of as a historical commemoration. The New Testament treats the ascension as an integral part of the Easter event.

In fact, the earlier Easter narratives depict the appearances as manifestations of the already risen and ascended One. Hence Paul could include his Damascus experience among the appearances in 1 Corinthians 15.

The later appearance narratives (Luke and John) show a tendency to separate the Resurrection and the Ascension, but still they are not regarded as two successive events. They are separated in order to contemplate the meaning of two aspects of a single, indivisible event.

When this separation occurs, the Ascension seems to be variously located: in Luke 24, on Easter Sunday evening or, at the latest, the next day; in John 20, sometime between the appearance to Mary Magdalene (who is told not to touch the risen One because he has not yet ascended) and the appearance to Thomas (who is invited to touch him); in Acts 1, after the forty days (which, however, are symbolic of the time of revelation; there may be no intention to suggest that the Ascension actually “occurred” on the fortieth day).

For several centuries the church did not, either in its writings or in its liturgy, treat the Ascension as though it actually “occurred” on the fortieth day.

With the revised church calendar, we still keep it on the fortieth day as a matter of convenience (and that this is not an absolute rule is indicated by the rubrical permission [in the Roman Liturgy] to transfer the observance to the following Sunday). This allows us to isolate for contemplation one particular aspect of the total Easter event.

Reading I: Acts 1:1-11

It is curious that in his two-volume work Luke tells the story of the Ascension twice (Lk 24; Acts 1). Each narration brings out a different aspect of the truth. The version in Acts looks forward to the future, to the inauguration of the church’s mission and the final return of the ascending One.

Luke’s perspective on salvation history represents an adjustment. Salvation history, already in the Old Testament, is constantly readjusted in the light of earlier events.

The earliest Church looked for only a brief interval between the Ascension and the parousia, an interval that would be marked by the apostles’ mission to Israel and by persecution and martyrdom.

Now salvation history is greatly extended. Paul already had modified it to include the mission to the Gentiles.

Now, for Luke, the church is here to stay, with a mission to the whole civilized world. But the hope of the parousia is still maintained, and the church’s mission is viewed as a preparation for the end.

Responsorial Psalm: 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9

This is one of the enthronement psalms, which, according to some scholars, were sung at a (hypothetical) annual feast at which the king was enthroned to symbolize Yhwh’s kingship over his people.

As the king took his seat upon his earthly throne, the whole people would have chanted this psalm in celebration of the kingship of Yhwh).

The Church in its liturgy has associated this psalm with, and transferred it to, the ascension of Christ. Ascension Day is the feast of Christ’s enthronement.

Henceforth God exercises his sovereignty over the universe through his exalted Son.

Reading II: Ephesians 1:17-23

Ephesians, whether written by Paul himself or, as now seems more likely, by a close disciple steeped in the thought of his master, begins, like most of Paul’s letters, with an opening thanksgiving and prayer. This prayer reproduces the pattern and phraseology of a liturgical hymn.

The first part of our passage prays for the church’s growth in wisdom and knowledge, and looks to the risen and ascended Christ for the power to foster this growth. The hymn then goes on to elaborate on the exaltation and kingship of Christ.

The New Testament views Christ’s kingship as exercised in two concentric circles. The inner circle embraces the church, where his kingship is known and acknowledged; the outer circle embraces the world, where he is de facto king but his kingship is as yet unrecognized (O. Cullmann).

The church’s function is to extend that inner circle to cover more and more of the outer one.

Gospel: Mark 16:15-20

It is now universally acknowledged that the earliest texts of Mark end at 16:8 and that verses 9-20 are a later addition. But that is not to say that they are worthless.

In any case, they form a part of the canonical Scriptures as the Church has received them (hence the term “canonical ending”). Also, the ending is a compilation of many traditions, some of them earlier than anything we have elsewhere in the Easter narratives.

The older view that it was an artificial summary of the other Gospel stories is now being increasingly abandoned. For instance, the command to preach the gospel and to baptize is presented in what is assuredly an earlier form than the more developed tradition at the end of Matthew.

At the same time, the second paragraph of our reading is clearly a summary based on the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts (note the separation of the ascension from the resurrection and the location of the appearances between them).

But unlike Luke and Acts, the sitting at the right hand of God is explicitly mentioned.

Reginald H. Fuller
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Preaching the Lectionary:
The Word of God for the Church Today

Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Liturgical Press. 1984. (Revised Edition).

Preaching the Lectionary

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