Feast of the Ascension
Today’s reflection is about Jesus charging His disciples to make further disciples of all nations. He also promises to be with them forever.
(NAB Matthew 28:16) 16 The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. 18 Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Today’s Gospel is the conclusion of the Gospel of Matthew. His Gospel moves rapidly from the disciples’ discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb, to Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, and finally to the commission that Jesus gives His disciples in today’s Gospel.
“The Final Commission”, as this Gospel is sometimes called, is given on the mountaintop. Throughout Holy Scripture, it seems the most important and climactic events happen on the mountaintop. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Peter, James, and John had seen Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop:
“After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, ‘Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’ When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and do not be afraid.’ And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.” (Matthew 17:1-8).
Also in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus taught the crowds from the mountaintop the “Sermon on the Mount” (cf., Matthew 5-7).
Wow! Jesus Christ is again on a mountain doing big things. He had already been “Risen” from the dead, and is about to show all present (and us) the ultimate gift to following on His path: going to God the Father and eternal happiness and joy in heaven. This climactic event, I have read, has been called a “proleptic Parousia”. I had no clue what “Prolepsis” means. According to the dictionary, it means, “the assignment of something as existing or occurring before it could have done so”. Jesus’ ascension is a “proleptic Parousia” because it gives a foretaste of the final glorious coming of the Son of Man:
“From now on you will see ‘the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power’ and ‘coming on the clouds of heaven.'” (Matthew 26:64).
At the Parousia, His victory will be manifest to all. However, for now, it is revealed only to the eleven disciples, who are commissioned by Jesus Christ to announce it to “all nations” and bring all to believe in Jesus as the true Savior of nations in obedience to His commandments.
Wasn’t there “Twelve” “chosen” disciples: Apostles? There is “eleven” disciples in this reading, recalling the sad and tragic defection of Judas Iscariot. For whatever unknown reason, this man who spent three years closely bonded to the human, yet divine Jesus Christ, sold Jesus to a certain death for thirty pieces of silver.
“To the mountain to which Jesus ordered them” is a slight deviation from Jesus’ initial message to the disciples, which was simply to go to Galilee:
“Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” (Matthew 28:10)
Some bible scholars believe the “mountain” comes from a tradition known to Matthew and referred in today’s Gospel. The significance of a “mountain” may have a theological rather than geographical meaning. Matthew possibly may be recalling the revelation to Moses and Elijah on Mount Sinai:
“The LORD said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain and, while you are there, I will give you the stone tablets on which I have written the commandments intended for their instruction.’ So Moses set out with Joshua, his aide, and went up to the mountain of God. The elders, however, had been told by him, ‘Wait here for us until we return to you. Aaron and Hur are staying with you. If anyone has a complaint, let him refer the matter to them.’ After Moses had gone up, a cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled upon Mount Sinai. The cloud covered it for six days, and on the seventh day he called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. To the Israelites the glory of the LORD was seen as a consuming fire on the mountaintop. But Moses passed into the midst of the cloud as he went up on the mountain; and there he stayed for forty days and forty nights.” (Exodus 24:12-18);
“He got up, ate and drank; then strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb. There he came to a cave, where he took shelter. But the word of the LORD came to him, ‘Why are you here, Elijah?’ He answered: ‘I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.’ Then the LORD said, ‘Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by.’ A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD–but the LORD was not in the wind.” (1 Kings 19:8-12; Horeb = Sinai).
They see Jesus, and both worship and doubt at the same time. Verse 17 states that the disciples “doubted”. The original Greek transcript of Matthew’s Gospel can also be translated, “but some doubted”. The Greek verb occurs again in the New Testament only in Matthew 14:31 where it is associated with Peter’s being of “little faith”.
“Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:31).
Is Jesus saying of His “Apostles” that they were “of little faith”. Matthew may have said, “they doubted” in reference those disciples of Jesus whose faith in Him was not as deep or full as it should have been by this time.
Jesus approaches and commissions them to “baptize and teach”, “to make disciples of all nations.” Baptizing and teaching the “word” are tasks Jesus had previously prepared His disciples for. Recall that Jesus had sent the twelve apostles to preach the Kingdom of God and to heal (cf. Matthew 10:1-15). However, in this earlier event, the Twelve were sent only to “the House of Israel”. In this “Final Commission”, the “Eleven” are told to go to “all nations.” Thus, the mission of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry is now to be taken to all people by His disciples with their (and our) mission to baptize and to teach.
The Risen Jesus Christ is declaring a universal “power” in heaven and on earth in verse 18:
“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).
The Greek word translated as “power” in today’s reading is the same as that found in Daniel 7:13-14 where one “like a son of man” is given power and an everlasting kingdom by God:
“As the visions during the night continued, I saw One like a son of man coming, on the clouds of heaven; When he reached the Ancient One and was presented before him, He received dominion, glory, and kingship; nations and peoples of every language serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14).
Since the Risen Jesus has a “universal power”, He gives the “Eleven” a mission that is “universal”. They are to “make disciples of all nations”. While “all nations” is understood by most readers as referring to all Gentiles, we should keep in mind that it also includes the Jewish nation as well.
Baptism is the way of entrance into the community of the “Risen one”, the Catholic (universal) Church. Jesus goes on to say exactly HOW to baptize each new disciple: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. This formula of baptism is perhaps the clearest expression of a “Trinitarian” belief found in the New Testament. Though it may have been the baptismal formula of Matthew’s church, it designates the effect of baptism – – the union of the person baptized with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Finally, Jesus Christ tells His disciple to go and “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you”. Jesus wants His Apostles to pronounce, and teach the moral teachings of His “universal” (Catholic) Church, preeminently that of the Sermon on the Mount (cf., Matthew 5-7). The commandments of Jesus are the standard of Christian conduct in this world. The Mosaic Law is now surpassed in His new covenant with new and expanded commandments, even though some of the Mosaic commandments have been invested with the authority of Jesus. Remember, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus Christ repeatedly said, “It was … Now I say do this ….”
With great joy, hope, and faith, I believe that Jesus is truly, “with me always”, as He states in verse 20 of todays reading. The promise of Jesus’ real, though invisible, presence echoes the name “Emmanuel”(God is with us), given to Him in the infancy narratives. God’s promise of deliverance to Judah in Isaiah’s time was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, in whom God is with His people.
Jesus is not only with us NOW; He will be with us until the “end of the age”. Besides today’s reading, this particular phrase is found in only two other verses in Matthews Gospel:
Just as weeds are collected and burned (up) with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous. (Matthew 13:40, 49);
As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples approached him privately and said, ‘Tell us, when will this happen, and what sign will there be of your coming, and of the end of the age?’” (Matthew 24:3).
In conclusion, the ending of Matthew’s Gospel can be understood as the beginning of the Catholic (universal) Church. Jesus Christ “commissions” His disciples to continue to teach in His name and to bring others into the Church Community of disciples through baptism. The Gospel ends, as it began, – – with the promise that Jesus will continue to be Emmanuel, “God with us”, for all eternity.
What does this Gospel reading mean for us as His disciples? Just as Jesus sent His disciples to make disciples, our family, the domestic Catholic Church (the Church Militant), is called to bear witness to the life of discipleship – – living in the way of Jesus. That act of witnessing can take many forms. First and foremost, we should “call” people to discipleship by the example of our love for one another. However, that example is only the beginning!! Our love must extend beyond our family and friends, purposely reaching out to others, and to the world and its creations.
Identify one or more ways in which you live the life of Catholic disciple. Identify one or more ways in which you would like to do a better job bearing witness to your life of discipleship. Choose one of those ways and make it happen. Then choose another, and so on. Pray for the grace to be witnesses to the world of the life of discipleship.
“Watch, O Lord”
“Watch, O Lord, with those who wake, or watch, or weep tonight, and give Your angels and saints charge over those who sleep. Tend Your sick ones, O Lord Christ. Rest Your weary ones. Bless Your dying ones. Soothe Your suffering ones. Pity Your afflicted ones. Shield Your joyous ones, and all for Your love’s sake. Amen.” (St. Augustine)
Pax et Bonum
Dan Halley, SFO