by Father Mike Stubbs
When a movie gains a large audience, and consequently earns a lot of money, it’s producers often consider making a sequel, in the hopes that the second movie will prove equally profitable. We can expect to see many such sequels this summer. We have no reason to believe that Luke’s Gospel resulted in a financial success. At the same time, it continues to be spiritually profitable. Perhaps that is why the evangelist decided to write a sequel: the Acts of the Apostles.
Sunday’s first reading — Acts 1:1- 11 — provides a transition between the Gospel and its sequel. It describes the Ascension, which is why it was selected as a reading for the feast that celebrates that event. Since the Gospel focuses upon Jesus’ ministry on earth, while the Acts instead directs its attention to the birth and growth of the early church, the Ascension makes the perfect bridge between the two works.
The Acts reading refers back to the Gospel by mentioning the 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and the ascension, during which Jesus speaks to the apostles about the kingdom of God, just as he had done in the Gospel: “He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during 40 days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”
The number 40 alerts us to the fact that this period involves a transition. The number 40 appears several times in the Scriptures, often more in a symbolic sense rather than a literal one. Jesus’ 40 days in the desert marks the transition between his private life in Nazareth and his public ministry. Forty days and nights of rain create the flood that washes the earth clean of sin and enables Noah and his family to start all over again. The Hebrew people wandered for 40 years in the desert. Before those 40 years, they worked as slaves in Egypt. Afterwards, they entered into the promised land of Canaan. Once again, the number 40 indicates a transition.
Besides the 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Sunday’s reading makes another link to the Gospel of Luke. The two men dressed in white garments who appear at the scene of the Ascension echo the two who similarly appear at the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning: “While they (the women who had come from Galilee) were puzzling over this, behold, two men in dazzling garments appeared to them” (Lk 24:5).
Although the text does not explicitly state it, the two men are presented as angels, since the color white, completely unpractical here on earth, symbolizes heaven. Are the two angels at the Resurrection the same as the two at the Ascension? It is not clear. In any case, they provide a link between the Gospel and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles.
The ascension of Jesus establishes a link between the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Similarly, it establishes a link between heaven and earth. It directs our gaze upward, as we remain here, to continue the work of Jesus in the world.