GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
So the first reading for today is where we actually get the account of Jesus’ Ascension, and that's in Acts of the Apostles 1. Let’s turn there for just a minute and we will read Luke's account of the Ascension, because it is really Luke, and Luke alone in the Acts of the Apostles, that gives us a full account of the timeframe between the resurrection and the ascension, and then the narrative of what happened on that day of the Ascension with the most details for us to reflect on. So it's the first 11 verses of the Acts of the Apostles, and this is Luke’s account:
In the first book, O The-oph'ilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God. And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, "you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit."
So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Sama'ria and to the end of the earth." And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
There are a number of things that stand out as you read Luke’s account of the Ascension. Number one, the timeframe. Notice that Luke makes very clear that this takes place 40 days after the resurrection of Jesus. So the first question we would have is what is the significance of the 40 days? The second thing that's important, notice that when Jesus goes up into heaven, when he is taken up into heaven, he is taken up to heaven in a cloud. So why is that the case? What is the significance of the cloud? For example, you might think in the Old Testament of 2 Kings 1, where we have an account of Elijah going up into heaven in a chariot of fire. So what's the significance of Jesus ascending into heaven on a cloud? Why isn’t it in a chariot of fire or why doesn’t he just disappear? What's the reason for the cloud? And then third and finally, and this is really important, what does it even mean to say Jesus ascended into heaven? What does heaven mean? What would it have meant to the Apostles, to a first century Jew, to say he went up into heaven? So let’s look at each one of those for just a second.
Number one, the first point I want to make here is about the 40 days. If you read the New Testament in light of the Old Testament, you will notice that the number 40 is a very significant number. And whenever you see the number 40, especially 40 days and 40 nights, it always refers to two things. It's a time of transition and it is a time of purification and preparation. You might think, “well where do you get that from?” First of all, if you look at Genesis 7 and 8, what you will see is that the 40 days and 40 nights of the flood are a time of purification from sin. So the world is being cleansed and purified of sin and the violence that led to the flood. But it's also a time of transition from the period before the flood to the time after the flood, and there are going to be major changes in the covenant between before the flood and after the flood with Noah — like in the permission to eat meat and the shortening of the lifespan of human beings. Secondly, if you look at the book of Exodus, the Israelites spend 40 years in the wilderness. So what is that? Well that is a time of purification, God is purifying them from the sins that they had committed when they were in Egypt, and He is also preparing them. They are transitioning into life in the promised land. And then finally, of course, there is the New Testament itself. If you look at Jesus’ 40 days and 40 nights in the desert, he goes out into the desert to be tempted, to be tested in order to prepare and transition into his public ministry, where he is going to begin performing miracles.
So that's what 40 always does: purification, transition, preparation, those things. So if you look at the 40 days after the resurrection, what is Jesus doing? Well he's preparing the disciples for his departure in the Ascension, but he is also purifying them of their misunderstandings about the nature of the kingdom. So they're telling him “Lord, is it this time? Is this the time where you are going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” They seem to almost still be waiting for a kind of earthly manifestation of the restoration of Israel and the kingdom of God, and what Jesus says to them is “it is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed. You stay in the city and wait to be clothed with the power of the Holy Spirit.” That's how the kingdom is going to come in them, it is in a way that they didn't expect. And we will look more at that when we get to the feast of Pentecost, but for now that's the significance of the 40 days: purification, preparation and then transition.
Well what about Jesus being taken up into heaven in a cloud? What is the significance of the cloud?