Last week, the Gospel reading from John explained how Christ was both present and absent, dwelling at once with the Christian community and his heavenly Father. This week, Luke and Matthew address the same theme. Although Christ was no longer bodily present, he made himself felt in many ways.
‘I am with you always, until the end of the age.’ (Mt 28:20)
How does Christ reveal his continuing presence to you?
How have you gone out on mission with Christ?
Luke gives the only scriptural account of Jesus’ ascension. In each Gospel, Jesus says farewell to his disciples, but only Luke describes his actual departure. Luke calls it an “ascent,” a common theme in ancient literature. In addition to the biblical ascent of Elijah, nonbiblical texts preserve ascensions of Moses, Abraham, Enoch, Isaiah and Muhammad, among others.
The setting of the Ascension is important. In Ezekiel’s prophecy, God’s glory leaves the temple during the Babylonian conquest (586 B.C.), and takes up residence over the mountain east of Jerusalem (Ez 11:23). This height in Jesus’ day was called the Mount of Olives. Jesus’ ascension from the same mountain implies that he has gone, quite literally, up to his Father. From his place at the Father’s right hand, Jesus would someday return; until then, he continues his mission through the action of the Spirit in the church.
It is only within a church as complex and wide-ranging as humanity itself that Christ, still with us, can reveal his face.
Matthew uses the prophecy of Daniel to relate something similar. In Dan 7:13-14, “one like a son of man” appears before God’s throne and receives three gifts, “authority, glory and a kingdom.” To Matthew, Jesus was the obvious fulfillment of this prophecy. Matthew insists that Jesus “speaks with authority”; he makes clear that Jesus’ transfiguration was a sharing of the Father’s glory, and he relates in detail Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom. In the closing lines of his Gospel, Matthew sketches the full realization of these themes. Having been glorified by the Father, Jesus received “all authority,” which he shared with his disciples for the propagation of the kingdom.
This mission was noteworthy in several ways. First, Christ demanded no vengeance. Although the Spirit inspired martial heroes in Israel’s past (Jgs 3:10, 6:34, 11:29), Jesus does not send his apostles to avenge his death (a hint of this may lie behind their question about “restoring the kingdom to Israel” in Acts 1:6). Second, the mission required mature faith. The Apostles were no longer apprentices, but full sharers in Christ’s authority. Finally, Christians were called to go out to make disciples. For the Evangelists, it was not enough to create a closed, self-propagating community. The angel who asked the disciples, “Why are you standing there, looking at the sky?” reminded them of Christ’s injunction to go out and make disciples of every nation. Christ’s authority and mission extend to every person on earth. It is only within a church as complex and wide-ranging as humanity itself that Christ, still with us, can reveal his face.