As the liturgical calendar approaches the final days of the Easter season, the Acts of the Apostles will soon be consigned to only being rarely used, if at all. It is one of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament book that is primarily reserved for Easter Day and the following fifty days until Pentecost. Otherwise, it is seldom if ever read publicly during Sunday or weekday liturgies.
The Acts of the Apostles, as the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, continues Luke’s presentation of biblical history, describing how the salvation promised to Israel in the Old Testament and accomplished by Jesus has now, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, been extended to the Gentiles. At the end of the Gospel of Luke, you would read this, “Then he led them [out] as far as Bethany, raised his hands, and blessed them. As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven. They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God” (Lk 24:50-53). Then, on Ascension Thursday, in the first verses of the Acts of the Apostles, after its prologue, remember that the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel? He answered them, ‘It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven’” (Acts 1:6-11). In the subsequent verse in Acts, this was noted, “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away” (verse 12). It is almost as if the sacred author remembered details that he had omitted in the Gospel. These first verses of the Acts appear to be a supplement to the Gospel’s account that expand what was said.
Acts depicts the place where the disciples and the Virgin Mary were to remain coupled with the promise of the coming of the Spirit. In addition, this continues to illustrate the disciples constant questioning of Jesus. The Lord answered them just before the cloud took Him out of their sight and two men in the white robes appeared and issued a challenge to those disciples who were staring heavenward. In this weekend’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles, those additional verses describe what the disciples did afterwards, “…they went to the upper room where they were staying” and the passage list the names of those present in that room and what they did. These two passages, when taken together, comprise a description of the Lord’s miraculous and mysterious return to heaven, the parting wisdom that He gave the, His promise of the Holy Spirit and the apostles return to Jerusalem patiently waiting and praying for the Spirit to come. The nine days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost, the Apostles and Mary prayed and waited for the Spirit to come – the Pentecost novena is the Church’s original novena.
Human nature was created lower than angelic nature, and, because of the Fall, there were no human beings in heaven before Jesus ascended there. That is, not only was humanity created lower than the angels, but through Adam’s sin humanity fell from the place it originally held in God’s original creation. Now, due to the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity took upon a physical, human body which is now in heaven. Human nature has been exalted in Jesus! This feat of the redemption of human nature is an even greater act than God’s original act of creation. Even more remarkable is that believers have a share in the Ascension of Jesus because human nature, in the person of Christ, is at the Father’s right hand.
Moreover, since the liturgical year now stands on the last Sunday of Easter, between the Lord’s Ascension and Pentecost, this passage of the Acts of the Apostles highlights the change in the mission that Jesus had begun – a shift from the work that Jesus had done is now given to those who follow Him. Ascended back to glory, the Risen Lord would no longer be able to preach the good news, heal the sick, or feed the hungry. The continuation of that mission has been entrusted to the disciples. And if that were not enough, before Jesus ascended back to heaven, He told them that they must take His message to the ends of the earth. The Resurrected Lord is leaving them, but not like the first time when leaving them took place in the agony of His death on the cross. This time His leaving is filled with wonder and blessing. As Jesus leaves them, he blesses them and promises to send them the Spirit of truth.