The Ascension in Matthew

The readings for Thursday, May 25, 2017, Ascension of the Lord, Cycle A, are
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23; and Matthew 28:16-20.

The Gospel of Matthew closes with the Great Commission — the Gospel selection for the Ascension of Jesus.  In Matthew 28, the faithful women disciples from Galilee had watched from a distance when Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. This was on a Friday, late afternoon. The Sabbath, a day of rest, kept them at home. But on the first day of the week, a Sunday morning, these women went “to see the sepulcher.” Jesus was gone.

An angel (sitting o the rolled-back stone) is the first to proclaim the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus, “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said ….  Go quickly and tell his disciples he has risen …, and is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him.” The Easter Proclamation comes first through an angel, then through a group of women and finally to men.” While the women were hurrying away from the tomb in great fright to proclaim the resurrection of Lord, Jesus himself appears to them and greets them with “Shalom.” He repeats the command of the angel, “Go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” The faithful women disciples have now been doubly commissioned — by the angel of the Lord and by the Lord himself. The reason for citing this Matthean background to the Gospel of the day: Matthew’s story is very different from that of Mark and Luke and John. Now we can see how the final appearance of Jesus to his disciples took place in Matthew’s version of events, or Matthew’s catechesis.

At this point our Gospel of the day picks up the action. “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” The appearance of Jesus at this time is a divine appearance, an appearance in glory, therefore appropriately on a mountain. Matthew undoubtedly implies that Jesus appears here in glory as he did in the mountain of the transfiguration.

The disciples reacted appropriately to the divine appearance, “When they saw him, they worshipped him ….” Matthew adds a startling note, “but some doubted.” After all they had seen and experienced? Consoling to us mortals, so often torn by doubt after all our Christian education and sacramental experience. Matthew makes no excuse for these doubters. If Luke were writing this version of events, he would say, “They doubted out of joy,” which is exactly what he writes as an excuse for the doubting disciples in Luke 24:41. The existence of the Christian religion is proof that the disciples overcame their doubts. “Then Jesus approached them and said, ‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’” Matthew always searches the Scriptures (our Old Testament) to borrow words, phrases, concepts, even historic and other figures to expedite his catechesis. This time he turns to Daniel 7:13-14.

The prophet Daniel has a vision in which he sees “one like a son of man,” ( a human being), “who came with the clouds to the throne of God.” God gave to this “one like a son of man” power and glory and a kingdom, “that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him ….”All the Gospels adopt this vision of Daniel, 165 B.C., as a “prophecy” about Jesus. This is why they repeatedly use the title “Son of Man” for Jesus, even to say that “the Son of Man will rise from the dead,” They speak of the Son of Man in glory. It is this vision of Daniel that Matthew has in mind, as he attributes to Jesus these words, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” As the son of man was given the authority of God in Daniel’s vision and therefore has full power to act for God, so Jesus also, the ultimate Son of Man, has full power to act for his Father. He puts that authority, that power, to work in the Great Commission.

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.”  Recall that Daniel’s son of man or human being was given power over all nations; the Christian way is a bit different. Jesus as Son of Man  does not exercise his power over nations directly. He pulls his disciples into the exercise of that power.  The disciples are to initiate the nations into the kingdom of the Son of Man as directed, “Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is not the only commission, as Jesus adds, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  Thus for the Solemnity of the Ascension we have a Gospel without an ascension. For an ascension story, one must consult today’s first reading from Acts of Apostles. For the catechesis or full meaning of the doctrine of the ascension of Jesus, consult today’s second reading.