Saturday, May 19, 2012

Ascension Day, the Kingdom, and the Church

In most of the country, this Sunday is celebrated as Ascension Day.  I'll offer a few comments about the first reading, which is really the primary reading for this particular solemnity:
Reading 1: Acts 1:1-11
In the first book, Theophilus,
I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught
until the day he was taken up,
after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit
to the apostles whom he had chosen.
He presented himself alive to them
by many proofs after he had suffered,
appearing to them during forty days
and speaking about the kingdom of God.
While meeting with them,
he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem,
but to wait for "the promise of the Father
about which you have heard me speak;
for John baptized with water,
but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."

When they had gathered together they asked him,
"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."
 The whole idea of "ascension" is a royal concept: the heir to the kingdom "ascends" to the throne (usually by steps) and takes his seat as ruler of the kingdom.  So we see also that kingdom ideas are present in this reading.

The disciples ask, "Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?"

Jesus response is often interpreted as a rebuff of their question, but following Hahn and others, I would agree that Jesus is answering the disciples, but telling them not when, but how.  It is not for them (or for us) to know the times, but the kingdom will be restored to Israel as the twelve witness to "Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth."

This sequence ("Jerusalem ... ends of the earth") is, on the one hand, a sort of programmatic outline of the Book of Acts, which begins with the Apostles in Jerusalem and ends with Paul preaching in Rome, the capital of the "ends of the earth."  We have to understand that "the ends of the earth" is an idiom which means "[the nations unto] the ends of the earth," in other words, the Gentiles (cf. Ps 22:27).  In a sense, the witnessing mission of the Apostles is completed in principle already in Acts, since the Gospel reaches Rome, the capital of the known world and crossroads of civilization.

But Hahn also argues that "Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth" is a "theological geography" of the Davidic Kingdom.  David's kingdom was not just over Israel--together with his son Solomon, he ruled over the surrounding nations as well.  During his own reign and that of Solomon, the extent of his rule was constantly expanding.  "Jerusalem" was David's own city (2 Sam 5), he personal royal property (or "federal district").  "Judea" was David's tribe (Judah) loyal to him first and last.  "Samaria" was the remains of the ten northern tribes, David's nation, who were loyal to him late (2 Sam 5) and defected quickly from his heirs (1 Kings 12-13).  "The ends of the earth" are the Gentiles, David's vassals.  All the nations were supposed to recognize David as king: Ps 2:1-12; 89:25-27.

The Apostles are the Twelve New Patriarchs, the nucleus of the reconstituted Israel.  As they witness to Christ moving out from Jerusalem, the "kingdom is restored" as David's tribe, nation, and vassals once more recognize the Son of David, Jesus, as King of the Universe, and come under the authority of the New Israel constituted by the Apostles.

Everyone recognizes that Acts is about the "growth of the Church."  Yet the Apostles do not preach "the Church," they preach about "the kingdom."  Acts is about the "kingdom" from beginning (Acts 1:6) to the end (Acts 28:31). So which is it: is Acts about the Kingdom or the Church?  Yes!  The Church is the manifestation of the Kingdom on earth.  More specifically, the term "Church" (Gk ecclesia) is primarily a word from the Psalms (Heb. qahal) that referred to the body of Israelites gathered in the Temple who mystically represented the entire kingdom in worship of the LORD.  So it is to this day: the Church is the worshiping body of the kingdom.

Unlike some dispensationalists, we are not awaiting the day when the government of Israel will rebuild a stone temple on the Temple Mount and reinstitute animal sacrifices.  Actually, that was attempted already under the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate and it didn't work.  That would be a regression in salvation history, and is not what Jesus intended by the "restoration of the kingdom to Israel." 

The Kingdom is already present among us, because every time the Eucharist is consecrated, the King is present among us.  And where the King is, there is the Kingdom.  The Eucharistic presence of Christ the King constitutes the Eucharistic assembly as the Kingdom of God.


De Maria said...

Hi, I wish you would have gone more in the direction of explaining this text:
but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."

There is one Baptism and many Catholics say that speaks to the Sacrament of Baptism. But it seems obvious to me that, because the Church admits the Baptisms of desire and blood, this one Baptism speaks of the underlying Baptism which is the foundation of all Baptisms. The Baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Read more


De Maria

De Maria said...

I agree with everything in your post. One of the things also though, which astounded me at this very Mass, was reading the very next words.

12 Then returned they unto Jerusalem ....13And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James.

The APOSTLES were not amongst them! I always envisioned St. Peter and crew present at that moment. I think I was confusing it with John 20:22.

I had never noticed before that the Apostles were not present when Jesus ascended into heaven. Is there a significance to that, I wonder?


De Maria

De Maria said...
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John Bergsma said...

De Maria: I think the RSV does a better job translating that passage: "Acts 1:13 and when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James ..." The Greek need not imply that the people who went up to the upper room were different than the apostles, and discovered the apostles sitting around up there when they arrived.

De Maria said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
De Maria said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
De Maria said...

After reading it again, it is clear that the Apostles were present.

Acts 1
King James Version (KJV)
1 The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach,

2 Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen:

3 To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God:

4 And, being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me.

5 For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.

6 When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?