Sunday, June 1, is Ascension Sunday in most of the United States. The ecclesiastical provinces of Boston; Hartford, Conn.; New York; Newark, N.J.; Philadelphia and Omaha, Neb., retain Ascension Thursday (this year, May 29) as a holy day of obligation.
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47:2-3, 6-9; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20
The Ascension story gives us a kind of “reverse Moses.”
From the early days of salvation history, clouds have been signs of the glory of God. A cloud represented the visits by God to Moses in Exodus, for instance, when he led them across the Red Sea and when he gave them the Ten Commandments. When the cloud was there, it meant God was with the Israelites and that he was providing his protection.
The story of the Ascension in the first reading ends when Jesus himself enters the cloud and does not return, making it clear that he himself was the heavenly visitor this time; he even says that “all power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
There are many parallels with the Old Testament here. Mount Sinai is the place where the Almighty gathered Israel, beneath his cloud, to receive the Ten Commandments. The Mount of Olives is the place where Jesus gathers the Church to receive the Great Commission.
Just like the mountain focal points of the Old Testament, the Mount of Olives was a focal point throughout the life of Christ. It was here that he wept over Jerusalem; it was here he taught about the Last Judgment and the reign of mercy in Matthew 24-25. And it was here he spent the night in prayer before he forgave and dismissed the woman caught in adultery.
In other words, the Mount of Olives is a symbol of Jesus’ mission of suffering for our sins. He stressed this on the night before he died, as the guilt of our sins bore down on him, and he asked the apostles to join him at the Mount of Olives in prayer.
They failed him then.
So when he gives them a new mission on the Mount of Olives, they would be all the more eager to fulfill it: “As the Father has sent me, even I send you,” he tells them in the Gospel. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.”
Just as the Ten Commandments opened a new era in salvation history for Moses and the Israelites, the Great Commission begins a new day for the Church. God once dealt with his people through the Law: Now, he is dealing with them in person. God once gave them rules to follow in their own lives: Now, he is giving them the world and asking them to convert the hearts of every nation.
He promises not to leave it all up to them.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” he says, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”
The Holy Spirit is God’s love — the power that created the earth and will renew it.
It is that power we pray for as we await Pentecost.
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas,
where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.