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For the next several Sundays, the liturgical cycle brings closure by showcasing the final verses of the Gospel narratives. The final Sundays of the Easter season and the first Sundays of Ordinary Time each have special characters of their own. This Sunday, for example, is the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, followed next Sunday by Pentecost, and then Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi. 

Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. (Mk 16:15).

Liturgical day
Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (B)
Acts 1:1-11, Ps 47, Eph 4:1-33, Mk 16:15-20

Where has the movement of the Easter season drawn you?

Are you looking up, wide-eyed, waiting for Jesus to appear?

Where must you move now in order to respond to God’s presence in all people?

In this Sunday’s first reading, which is Luke’s account of Jesus’ ascent to heaven, the key theme is movement. Throughout the first chapter of Acts, Luke makes two things clear. First, Jesus spends time with his disciples after his resurrection. “He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days” (Acts 1:3). Throughout Scripture, forty is a sacred number that demarcates an exceptional transition. Noah spent forty days in the ark; Israel wandered the desert for forty years; Jesus fasted for forty days and nights at the beginning of his public ministry. In a similar way, Jesus provides a sacred forty days for his followers to learn how to move forward after the resurrection.

Second, Jesus ascends. “He was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight” (Acts 1:9). At first glance, it appears that the movement is vertical, up in the clouds. Lost is this scene, however, to modern readership. Ancient peoples of many cultures understood that an anointed person, someone touched by the divine hand of God, had a secure place in the next world; for them, eternity was guaranteed. Luke relates Jesus’ ascension as a way of illustrating his movement from the mortal to eternal realms. Luke considers it a distraction to linger too long on this ascension event, however. The real “movement” in Luke’s ascension narrative is the work of the disciples. As they look up, wide-eyed with mouths open, an angel speaks to them, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” (Acts 1:11). The disciples have had their period of transition, their sacred time. It is now time to get to work; they must move.

Unlike Jesus, who lifted off vertically from the earth, the disciples’ movement is horizontal. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). This attempt to find God’s presence in all people and to share Christ’s Gospel with them becomes the main theme of Acts of the Apostles. That Jesus ascends is a given. But the fact that his disciples will encounter him again among new people and in distant places is the novelty of their post-resurrection experience.

Next week is Pentecost Sunday. This Sunday’s theme of horizontal movement will continue in the witness of the disciples to the power of the Spirit. It is a sacred image of church: All people understand each other through the Spirit, even if only for a brief moment.

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