Father Donald Senior, CP

May 24: Ascension of the Lord

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Disciples look for the Lord

Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9; Eph 1:17-23; Mt 28:16-20

I remember my first visit to Chartres Cathedral in France, perhaps the most beautiful medieval cathedral in all of Europe. Situated about an hour’s drive northeast of Paris, its soaring spires are visible as you approach the town. 

Because it was never severely damaged, even during war, its stained glass windows and most of its statuary are intact and exquisite. One of the features that lingers in my mind is a panel on the choir screen surrounding the main altar featuring carvings of Gospel scenes. The last of these depicts the Ascension. 

I think the sculptor had a sense of humor. The panel depicts the disciples gathered in a room and looking up with a sense of wonder on their faces, staring at a pair of legs dangling from the ceiling. It is Jesus on his way to heaven.

The feast we celebrate today takes its cue from the evangelist Luke, who, at the end of his Gospel, describes the final act of Jesus’ earthly mission and his triumphant return to his Father. Remembrance of that scene is invoked again at the beginning of Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, whose prologue we have in our first reading for this Sunday.

One of the intriguing features of the account is the message of the angelic visitors who come on the scene as the stunned apostles are looking up to heaven, as if following the course of a launched missile. This is the scene the artist depicted in the Chartres panel.

“Men of Galilee,” they exclaim, “why are you standing there looking at the sky?” This question banks off of the risen Jesus’ final instructions to his apostles just as he was about to ascend: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In other words, “Stop staring at the sky. Rather, get down to business and begin your work of proclaiming the Gospel to the world.”

In fact, with this opening scene, Luke sets out the entire plan of the Acts of the Apostles. First will come the power of the Spirit sent by Jesus — the Pentecost event we celebrate next Sunday. Then, the small community gathered by Jesus will break out into the world and bring the beauty and power of the Gospel “to the ends of the earth.”

In different ways, the other readings for this Sunday pick up this same expansive spirit of the Christian message. The responsorial Psalm 47 reminds us that the Lord we worship is “the great king over all the earth,” one who “reigns over the nations.”

A key concern of the second reading from Ephesians, which most interpreters see as a kind of summary of Paul’s theology, affirms that the power of the risen Christ places him “above every principality, authority, power and dominion” — his name is over “every name that is named.” 

A dominating mood in the Roman world contemporary with Paul was a sense of fatalism that human destiny was in the hands of distant and often alien powers of the universe. The Gospel, on the other hand, rejected that sense of fatalism, stating that the ultimate power within the universe is that of a loving God who cares for each human being with tenderness.

The Gospel passage for this feast is the final scene from of Matthew’s Gospel, in which the risen Christ appears on a mountaintop in Galilee, majestically commissioning his disciples to bring the good news of Christ to all nations. The Gospel ends with Christ’s promise: “I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

This is the lingering mood of the feast of the Ascension: called to be witnesses of God’s love and compassion to the ends of the earth; assured that there is no alien power in the universe more powerful than God’s providence; promised that the risen Christ will be with us always.

At a time when uncertainty and fear of death are all around us, we are invited to plunge deeper into the assurance of God’s abiding love for us and to witness it to an anxious world.


  • scripture