The New Testament spends very little time discussing the ten day period including the Ascension of the Lord and Pentecost, compared with other major events in the earthly life of Jesus and his Paschal Mystery. Although the Archdiocese of Santa Fe is one of the majority dioceses in the United States that celebrates the Ascension on the Seventh Sunday of Easter (June 1, 2014), the actual timeline begins ten days before Pentecost on a Thursday.
All four Gospels prophesy a Holy Spirit of God that will be an element of baptism for the apostles and the closest disciples of Jesus. John speaks of this ‘advocate’ at great length in revealing the discourse of the Lord following the institution of the Blessed Sacrament at the Last Supper. Each Gospel also offers a version of the commissioning of the apostles to go forth, celebrate the sacraments and spread the ‘good news.’ However, only Mark and Luke discuss the Ascension (in the briefest of terms), and none of the evangelists describe the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
Luke, of course, has a second book, Acts of the Apostles, a volume which does describe the Ascension and Pentecost, but again not with overwhelming detail. In fact, the entire scene is over by the end of the second chapter. Even though they were spectacular demonstrations of the awesome power of God, it was not the two holy days that stood out in importance, but what happened in between and after them.
For starts, this is a season of firsts. The first reading two weeks ago on May 18 was from Acts 6:1-7, in which the apostles commissioned Greek workers to minister among the Gentiles. This event is recognized by the Church as the beginning of the Deaconate, whose name is from a Greek word meaning ‘servant.’ Naturally, that took place later than Pentecost, which is usually called the birth of the Church.
The Gospel for the Ascension follows the three year cycle of Scripture readings, and is from Matthew in 2014, the last verses of his writing. It is these words that are most often recognized as the beginning of the priesthood. Jesus told eleven disciples to baptize all nations in the name of the Holy Trinity and to teach the Gospel and the commandments. Then he told them that he would be with them through the Holy Spirit even until the end of the world.
These events were the catalyst for everything else that happened in Acts. Immediately after Jesus’ Ascension, angels confronted the apostles and basically sent them on their way to get busy and to wait for the Holy Spirit needed to complete their work. Luke says that many of them gathered in hiding, already forming a community of fearful believers, and they went about doing the things that Jesus taught them: to read Scripture in prayer and worship, to commune with one another, looking out for each one’s needs, to tell THE story, and to break bread together. They conducted routine business and set about the task of electing Matthias to succeed Judas among the twelve. And everything was going on just like that when the Holy Spirit arrived.
It was the first celebration of the sacrament of Confirmation, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit were abundant. Luke scarcely takes two paragraphs to tell how wind shattered the silence surrounding the hidden disciples, and the Spirit of God visited each as a tongue of fire hovering over their heads, how they became scriptural, multi-lingual intellects filled with the gifts of the Spirit: wisdom, understanding and counsel, fortitude, knowledge, and piety, and awe of the Lord. These gifts made it possible for Jesus’ followers to carry out the mission at hand, and willingly extend faith, hope, and charity to one and all.
They were transformed in a way that no one anticipated, even though Jesus had mentioned it a few times. Peter, who a little while before was an agitating man who had doubts, disbelief, few words to say, and a short fuse, suddenly became a great orator and finally lived up to the expectation of his leadership. Three thousand were baptized following his speech on Pentecost. The workers of the new faith reached out far and wide to share the Gospel, and soon they would be joined by Paul, who received the Spirit in a most unusual way, and worked tirelessly to tell everyone in earshot about the Lord and the kingdom of God.
Acts of the Apostles ends rather abruptly after twenty-eight chapters of telling how the first disciples followed the command of Jesus even unto death. It is a story of great courage and perseverance. Some scholars have proposed that it ended that way, with Paul preaching in Rome, professing the solidarity of the kingdom, how rejected by the Jews, was accepted by the Gentiles, and thus given to all the people of the world, and taught to them by every disciple since, because the next act in Paul’s life is his execution. Luke was unable to write about the death of his mentor, fellow disciple, and friend.
Perhaps there was a different reason. Acts of the Apostles has been passed down through the generations and will always have another page to add. It tells how those closest to Jesus and some who never met him spread the Gospel and lived in faith-giving communities. It tells how a Church rose up against all odds and led the way to become the great Christian faith it is today. In order for it to remain as such, all the faithful have been called to pick up where these saints left off and continue to do what Jesus always taught: to love God completely and to show that love by the way we care for one another.
The Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost are indeed landmarks of the Church year, but it is the response to those events that matters most to faith construction. The Master Builder watches over us as we carry on his blueprint; he will be with us always, even until the end of the age.