Today I preached for Ascension Sunday. There was a lot of cool stuff in these readings that I learned in class. I wanted to share some of what I've learned about these Bible passages, so I asked the folks at the parish to put on their thinking caps as we began:
Have you ever read a really great story? I mean one where at the end of the story, all the major themes of the story are brilliantly wrapped up, but even as the story ends, the author leaves you sure that more good things are yet to come. That's what we have in the Gospel today. The Gospel of Luke is the first of two books in the New Testament that Luke wrote. The second book, the second volume, he wrote is the Acts of the Apostles. We'll get there, but first lets look at the brilliant story writing in Luke.
Our reading from Luke's Gospel today is the very end of his Gospel, and in it he weaves together some very subtle clues for his Jewish audience, things that they were sure to pick up on. Firstly, he says that they will be "clothed with power from on high." This "power from on high" recalls Moses and Elijah. Remember, Moses and Elijah had already appeared with Jesus at the Transfiguration, so if you're reading Luke's story straight through you've already met these two.
Elijah, who was a prophet, gave his power of prophecy to Elisha, when he was lifted up to heaven. Now Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah's spirit, and Elijah said that if Elisha saw him lifted into heaven, that would indeed be a sign that Elisha would receive the double portion. If he didn't see him, then the double portion would not be given. Similarly, Jesus reminded the apostles that they had witnessed, they had seen, all that Jesus had accomplished, and that the apostles would receive power from on high after he ascended. To the Jewish reader, Jesus's promise of power from high recalled images of Elijah giving his power to Elisha.
This reception of power from God would also recall for a Jewish reader the way Joshua had received power from Moses. Remember, as readers we already have Moses on the mind because he appeared at the Transfiguration. Moses, when he was preparing to die, gave authority to Joshua and Joshua led the people after Moses, because he had "received the Spirit of Wisdom" because Moses laid hands on him. This laying on of hands is an ancient symbol of passing on power and authority. When I was ordained a deacon, the bishop laid hands on my head, and the same thing happened to Fr. Joseph at his priestly ordination. It's a sign that he has real power to celebrate the sacraments, and real priestly authority given by Christ.
And speaking of priestly authority, the other detail from the gospel that deserves attention is Jesus raising his hands in blessing. This is not a mundane detail. Raising your hands in blessing is a specifically priestly gesture, and in Luke's Gospel, the last time this priestly blessing was present was at the beginning of the Gospel with Zechariah, John the Baptist dad's. He was supposed to come out of the temple and give the blessing, but he couldn't give the blessing because he had been made mute because he doubted God's Word. When finally he could speak, he sang a new blessing to God, and here at the end of Luke's Gospel we see Jesus giving a blessing because he is the new high priest.
So Luke brings all these elements together at the end of his story, in this one person of Jesus, Luke brings together Moses, Elijah, and the Jewish priesthood. And this entire mantle of Jewish history, Jesus takes on himself. He will pass this mantle, this power, onto his disciples at Pentecost, but for now he tells them to wait for it.
The Acts of the Apostles, Luke's second book of the New Testament, picks up where the Gospel leaves off, and, like a good author, Luke briefly recaps what happened in volume one before he starts volume two. He addresses briefly the question the apostles had about whether Jesus was going to establish his kingdom now or later. Jesus clarifies that it is not for them to know. But after that lack of an answer, he gives a very reassuring promise that provides the plot of the story for the whole second volume, and has been the plot of the Church's story for 2000 years. He promises that "you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth." This is referring to the Pentecost event that we will celebrate next week. This verse is special to me because this was the theme for World Youth Day in 2008, which I was privileged to attend. World Youth Day is a gathering that brings youth together from all over the world to celebrate their Catholic faith together with the Pope. At a World Youth Day celebration, you truly see that there are witnesses to Christ's gospel clear to the ends of the earth. One person after another witnessing to Christ's Resurrection took the Gospel from rural villages in ancient Palestine all the way here to Arvada, Colorado. This is truly the Holy Spirit at work, this doesn't happen on our own.
When you see how the Catholic Church has stood like a rock through 2000 years of human history, when you see people from all the world gather to share Christ's love, it's not hard to see that his promise about the Holy Spirit was real, and it was powerful. The Holy Spirit is truly the animating force behind the Church today, and this brings us back to today's celebration: the Ascension. After Jesus's Resurrection, it was clear he wasn't bound by the same physical restriction that we are. He could appear in locked rooms and disappear just as easily, and sometimes he would talk with people and they would't recognize him. But he still would only be in one place at a time. Once he ascended, he could send the Holy Spirit, who is present to all people at all times. But he also ascended into heaven to finish paving the way for us to follow. He had already paved the way from death to life, and now he ascends to heaven to pave the rest of the way for us.
Our second reading, the letter to the Hebrews, lays out a beautiful description of what Christ did by ascending, and it compares it to the Jewish temple. The Jewish people had a temple in Jerusalem made by human hands, Jesus entered a temple not made by hands. The Jewish priests had to offer blood sacrifices continually to take away sins, because they were never enough, but Jesus, the true high priest, offered one sacrifice, himself, to take away the sins of us all. And here's where the author of this letter does something really amazing, when he says that by the blood of Christ we have entry into the Sanctuary. The inner sanctuary of the Jewish temple was the holy of holies where God was believed to dwell. It was blocked by a huge veil, and that was the veil that was torn in two at Jesus's death. No one was allowed to enter it except the high priest, and even he could only enter it once a year. But now through the flesh of Jesus, which is the veil of the new temple, we are all allowed to enter this new sanctuary! The tearing of the temple veil at Jesus's death was a symbol that all had access to God now. Jesus is the new high priest, of the new sanctuary in heaven, and because of him we all have access to God! We have access to God through the flesh of Jesus.
But when we see Jesus ascend into heaven while we remain here on earth, we have to take the last line of the second reading as advice for us. "Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope, for he who made the promise is trustworthy." We have to hold fast to our confession, to what we believe and what he commands, because we do believe that his promise to come again is trustworthy. The two men in the first reading told the apostles that Jesus would come back the same way we saw him go. The story tells us they were men, but they kind of remind me of moms. "What are you doing staring at the sky, get back to town like he told you to do." I get to go see my own mom today, and I couldn't help but think of her, and the many mother figures in my life, when thinking about this line to "hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope." For all you moms out there, who for years have been unwavering in your love of God and your family, thank you, you are a model for the rest of us. The rest of us will always look to you for an unwavering confession of faith as we all await the return of The Lord in glory.