First Reading: The Ascension (Acts 1.1-11)
How are we to envisage what happened at the Ascension? Two feet disappearing into a cloud? It is mentioned only in the Acts, and the other gospels seem to imply that the Risen Christ was glorified on the day of the Resurrection itself. Luke, the author, is putting across several messages. Firstly, the 40 days since Easter should not be carefully counted. In biblical language ‘40’ makes just ‘a fairly long period’, often a period of preparation, like Jesus’ 40 days being tested in the desert, or Israel’s 40 years of the Exodus. For all that time Jesus has been preparing his apostles. Secondly, it is the definitive parting of the physical Jesus, after which the Risen Christ is no longer with his disciples. It is now the Spirit of Christ which is at the heart of the Church, inspiring all its activity. Thirdly, Luke represents Jesus as a prophet (and more than a prophet), so he leaves his disciples in the same way as the prophet Elijah, who was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot, leaving his disciple Elisha to carry on his work, filled with a double share of his spirit.
Question: What is the essence of the Ascension: feet disappearing into a cloud, or the completion of Christ’s vindication?
Second Reading: The Gifts of Christ (Ephesians 4.1-13)
This reading has two crucial passages, divided by a puzzling section. The Letter to the Ephesians was probably written by a close follower of Paul rather than the apostle himself. In many ways it sums up and develops Paul’s teaching. The puzzling bit in the middle is a specialized piece of Jewish exegesis, brought in by the quotation of Psalm 68 (67).18. The point of the passage is not the rather contrived explanation of ‘ascended’, but the fact that Christ’s return to the Father ensured the gifts of the Spirit. These gifts are detailed both before and after the quotation. The earlier part is almost a reflection on Paul’s plea to the Corinthians in First Corinthians 1-3, urging them to abandon their squabbles and work together: ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’, a unity of Christ’s followers for which we are still hoping and praying ever more urgently. After the quotation comes what could also be a reflection on the later teaching of First Corinthians 12-14 about the gifts of the Spirit. Through the Spirit every member of the Church has their own special gift, their own special contribution and ministry to building up the body of Christ
Question: How should we balance the disagreements between Christians and the need for unity?
Gospel: The Conclusion of the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16.15-20)
This final blessing on the mission of the disciples summarizes events narrated in the Acts of the Apostles, events which show the power of the Spirit at work in their mission. Finally the account of the Ascension itself is given, modelled on the account given in the Acts, the assurance of the power of Christ which stands behind all the works of his followers and believers. Most of these activities would not be expected in today’s Church, but the first and the last are still the task of the Church. Casting out evil spirits and healing may not be done so dramatically as in the gospel miracles, but it is still the Christian’s task to bring goodness where there is evil and healing where there are wounds. We have many opportunities in the course of the day either to foment anger and enmity or to soothe it, opportunities to roughen a wound or to smooth it down. As we know from our failures to do this, such works are the works of the Spirit of Christ, supporting our own weakness and triumphing over our own leanings towards evil.
Question: What would you say are the marks of Christ’s presence and power at work in the Church?
Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB