2002 May 12 Ascension of Jesus (Prison Writings)
Cycle A Ascension
Acts 1, 1-11,
Eph 1, 17-23,
Fr Frank Cordaro
The Ascension of the Lord:
This year our diocese is celebrating the Feast of the Ascension on the 7th Sunday of Easter instead of celebrating the feast traditionally on the 40th day after Easter. This week’s first reading is the first twelve verses of Acts of the Apostles, the account of the Ascension. This week’s gospel is the last five verses of the Gospel of Matthew, an account of Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples.
Throughout the Easter season, I have paid special attention to how the four gospel writers handle the differing appearances of the Risen Lord. By this, I mean, if we were to put each of the gospel writers’ versions of the post Easter appearances of the Risen Lord into a play format, how would each be staged? Below is a short review of each.
Mark: The ending of the original gospel of Mark has no appearances of the Risen Lord at all, just an account of Easter Sunday morning and the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene and two other women go into the empty tomb. A young man announces the resurrections and tells them to tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. The women run from the tomb, frightened and afraid to tell anyone anything. End of story. Curtain falls.
In a longer, added on version, not by the hand of the original author, the Risen Lord appears to Mary Magdalene, who in turn tells Jesus’ disciples who do not believe her. Then it is reported that Jesus appeared to the two disciples on the same day walking out into the country. (This is seen as a connection with the Emmaus story in Luke.) Finally, Jesus appears to the Eleven while they were at table. He commissioned them to preach the gospel and then is taken up to heaven while the disciples remain at the table. Story ended the second time. Curtain closes.
Matthew: Easter Sunday morning an angel rolls the stone away. The angel tells Mary Magdalene and the other Mary about the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection. Then the angel tells them to go and tell Jesus disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. On their way to tell the disciples, Jesus appears to the two Mary’s. They embrace Jesus’ feet in homage. Jesus tells them to tell the disciples that he will meet up with them in Galilee.
The gospel ends with the eleven disciples in Galilee on a mountain with Jesus. He commissioned them to proclaim the gospel and promises he will be with them until the end of the age. The gospel ends. There is no ascension, and the curtain falls with Jesus in the midst of his disciples.
Luke: A group of women led by Mary Magdalene go to the tomb on Easter Sunday morning, discover the stone rolled away, and the tomb, empty. While there, two men appear and tell of Jesus’ resurrection. They return to Jerusalem to tell the disciples. The disciples did not believe them. Peter went to the tomb to check it out. He finds the tomb empty and returns home amazed.
Then Luke tells the story of Jesus’ appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and how they came to recognize him in the breaking of the bread, and then immediately disappearing. The two disciples return to Jerusalem to report to the others. The other disciples tell them that Jesus had truly risen and that he appeared to Simon (Peter).
While they were speaking, Jesus appeared to them, showed them his hands and feet, had them touch his wounds, asked them for something to eat, and ate a piece of baked fish. Then he opened their minds to why things had to happen the way they did because of scripture. He commissioned them to proclaim the gospel and tells them to stay in Jerusalem to await the Holy Spirit.
That same evening Jesus leads them out of the city to Bethany where he ascends into heaven. The gospel ends by telling us that the disciples return to Jerusalem in joy and are continually in the temple praising God.
Acts: In Acts, Luke’s sequel to his gospel, after the introduction (1:1-2), he gives another account of Jesus’ ascension. Jesus appears to his disciples over a forty-day period after Easter. After this forty-day period, and differing from his gospel version, Jesus ascends into heaven.
Acts’ account of the ascension takes place on Mount Olivet, a Sabbath’s journey from Jerusalem. After Jesus shares his last words with his disciples, he is taken up to heaven. Two men dressed in white appear and inform the disciples that Jesus will one day return to them, and then the disciples return to Jerusalem to await the coming of the Holy Spirit.
John: Easter Sunday Morning, Mary Magdalene discovers the stone was removed from the tomb and goes and tells the disciples. Peter and John return to the tomb, enter it, and confirm the missing body of Jesus. They return home.
Mary Magdalene remains outside the tomb weeping. After Peter and John leave, she entered the tomb and saw two angels. The angels ask her why she is weeping. She tells them someone has taken the Lord. She turns around and sees Jesus but does not recognize him. Jesus asks her why she is weeping. Thinking Jesus was a gardener, Mary asks if he knew what happened to Jesus’ body. Jesus calls Mary by name. She immediately recognizes him and clings to him. Jesus tells her not to hold him for he has to return fully to his Father. He tells her to return to the disciples and report what she has seen and heard. Mary returns to the disciples to report.
Easter Sunday Night, Jesus appears to his disciples in the upper room, despite the locked doors. He shows them his hands and side, commissions them, and breathes on them, giving them the Holy Spirit. (John’s Pentecost)
Thomas was not with the disciples Easter Sunday night and refused to believe the other disciples’ reports about the risen Jesus. One week later, back in the locked, upper room, Jesus reappears to the disciples and this time Thomas is with them. Jesus tells Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and in his side and tells him to stop his disbelief. Jesus then blesses those who will to believe without seeing. The gospel proper ends with a short conclusion by John.
John has an epilogue of an account of the Risen Jesus’ appearance in Galilee. Jesus encounters seven of his disciples in a boat after they had fished all night and had caught nothing. From the shore Jesus gives them instructions to drop their nets in the water again. They do, and they catch a huge number of fish. They then recognize that it is Jesus on the shore. They go ashore and find Jesus at a campfire cooking fish. They had breakfast together. The epilogue concludes with Jesus and Peter having a conversation followed by a two-verse conclusion by John.
More than One Way to Tell the Truth: The first thing that strikes me about the four Gospels and Acts of the Apostles accounts of the post-Easter appearances of Jesus is how different each one is. For folks whose sense of truth depends on an ordered and consistent chronology of the facts, the Gospels and Acts pose insurmountable problems. Any efforts to synthesize the differing accounts into one consistent narrative inevitably fail and do great disservice to the ways in which truths are revealed in each one of the accounts separately. Each account must be read on its own merits for the truths revealed. When taken individually, the similarity of truths revealed are remarkably close, but not identical, nor do they need to be.
The Risen Body: When the body of the Risen Jesus appears in the Gospels and Acts, he is both whole and transparent. He is whole in that he is alive and physically (of flesh) there. He can be touched. He eats food. He is transparent because he goes to hell and into heaven and back into human time and space. He is recognized not so much by eyesight, as by sight of hearts; example, Mary (John 20:16) and in Emmaus (Luke 24:30-31) Though raised, transformed, and alive, Jesus’ body retains the wounds of his former life, the marks of his death.
It is one thing to describe how the risen body of Jesus is presented in the text. It is another to explain how it happens. I can’t. There is no explaining it. It is a matter of faith, not fact. What is important is the meaning behind the truth and not the proof of the truth.
Mary Magdalene: This is a woman I would have liked to meet.. Scripture says that Jesus chased seven devils out of her. That means she must have been one “Bad” woman, which also means she must have been one, formidable, bigger than life, disciple of Jesus. A strong case can be made for Mary Magdalene’s being Jesus’ closest and most faithful disciple.
John’s claim of being the disciple Jesus loved is too self-serving. He reminds me of my brother Bill’s claim of being our mother’s best loved, best looking son.
Three of the Gospels place her at the foot of the Cross, and Luke infers her presence as one of the women who followed Jesus from Galilee and witnessed his Crucifixion. All four Gospels place her at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning, and three (Matthew, Mark, and John) record appearances of Jesus to her.
In a male-dominated patriarchal world of the first century, the fact that a strong tradition of Mary Magdalene’s active role in witnessing and proclaiming the death and resurrection of Jesus survived in the text, speaks volumes. Clearly Mary Magdalene functioned in a powerful, leadership role in the early Church. Without a doubt, she is the most under-rated, ignored disciple of Jesus.
The Ascension. It should be noted that the account of the Ascension only appears in the writings of Luke. It is mentioned secondarily in Mark’s Gospel in the added on ending, added onto the Gospel many years after it was originally written. Of the two accounts by Luke the one at the end of his Gospel takes place Easter Sunday night in Bethany. The account in the beginning of Acts takes place forty days after Easter and on Mount Olivet.
The First Conclave: Were women voting members? If we had the readings we usually have for the 7th Sunday of Easter, the first reading would be Acts 1:12-14, three verses that describe the make-up of the post Ascension, pre-Pentecost community which spends ten days in Jerusalem in the Upper Room praying in anticipation of the coming of the Holy Spirit. They also fulfill a leadership and governing task of selecting a successor to Judas, Jesus’ betrayer.
Along with the remaining eleven Apostles, this, the first governing body of the Church, included some of the faithful women who followed Jesus from Galilee whom Mary Magdalene was surely one of and Jesus’ Mother, Mary, and his brothers and sisters. The mere mention of Jesus’ brothers and sisters is problematic to Catholic dogmatists.
According to Acts all three of these groups, numbering about 120 people had a say in the selection of Judas’ replacement. It is important to remember that this text was written before there was a pope in Rome, before we had canon law, and before any dogma of Mary were developed. Still, this early church and its governing body were no less authentic and may well be more authentic than we are today. The point I’m hoping to make is as we struggle in the future with how best to govern and lead our faith community, that we don’t limit ourselves or the Holy Spirit based only on what we know without being open to what we can be.