May 25, 2017
Solemnity of the Lord’s Ascension
Matthew’s Gospel does not relate any appearance of the Risen Lord to the disciples, except what we read today. After the resurrection, the first and only ones to see the Lord are the women, to whom Jesus gave the task of announcing to His brothers to go to Galilee: there they will see Him (Mt 28: 9-10).
To see the Lord, therefore, the disciples must obey His Word and set out; and they must go back to the place where their entire history with the Lord began.
The Gospel ends up in that place, where somehow it began: and this to say, among other things, that the Gospel does not end, that Jesus’s life is never once and for all assimilated, that it is not enough to read it one time to know something about Him. But where the story ends, there, from the same point, every time it starts again, and the journey will go the same way but it will not be the same; and it will lead us every time to an ever deeper knowledge of Him.
The text seems to say that, once arrived in Galilee, the disciples find that the Lord has preceded them and is already there, waiting for them (Mt 28:16). There is no mission – the disciples will be sent at once to announce the new life of the Risen Lord – which does not begin from this experience, which does not arise from the surprise of being always preceded, and of being preceded despite their betrayals, abandonments, failures. One can always start anew.
The encounter is marked by two different attitudes: the disciples adore Him, but some doubt (Mt 28:16).
The first, adoration, expresses faith, and is reserved only to God: in the temptations episode (Mt 4:8-10), the devil brought Jesus up a mountain – just like today’s episode occurs on a mountain – and asked Him to adore him in return for all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; but Jesus did not fall into the deception, and He clung to that Word which does not admit that anyone else may take God’s place: “The Lord, your God, you will worship, to Him alone will you render worship” (Dt 6:13).
And in today’s Gospel, after having given everything for love and having done fully the Father’s Will of salvation, it is He who receives not only the adoration that the devil would have liked to embrace, but also those kingdoms that the devil would have given him in exchange. Thus Jesus can assert: “All power is given to me in heaven and on earth” (Mt 28:18).
The second attitude seems almost strange in such an intense context, in such a solemn encounter. Yet the evangelist does not fear to say that doubt is present even at this moment, even within that first group then called to evangelize all others. Faith remains mixed with doubt, and can only be so.
The Lord is calling them as He one day called Peter to walk on the waters to meet Him, and there also he, the first of the apostles, doubted (Mt 14:31); Jesus then reproached Peter for his little faith. But it is precisely from this humble knowledge of one’s own poor faith that one can begin every time: from there the disciples will also begin their universal mission.
To these disciples, mingled with faith and unbelief, Jesus approaches (Mt 28:18): “approaching” is a verb often used in the Gospel of Matthew, especially to speak the people who approach Jesus to seek healing and salvation.
Only twice does this verb tell the opposite movement, that of Jesus approaching the disciples: here, and in the episode of the Transfiguration (Mt 17:7). It is no coincidence that both episodes speak of Jesus in his glory: as to say that the glory of the Lord is never something far from men, from His own, in fact. It is exactly the place where he draws closer, where He has an infinite possibility of getting close.
And it is for this reason that just when He is leaving His own, then He can pronounce words that tell of a definitive relationship and presence: “I am with you all days until the end of the world” (Mt 28:20).
These are the last words of Matthew’s Gospel, and they are surprising words: the Risen Lord has not gone away, but he has definitively come.
Thus is fulfilled the promise with which the Gospel began, the one announced to Joseph in a dream by an angel: the child that Mary carried in her womb would be God-with-us (Mt 1:22).
Now begins a new story, that of God present in history through the resurrected life of the Lord, Who gives His Spirit.
And it is also new because it is for everyone: the disciples are sent to live in the midst of all people, and to be everywhere a leaven of new life, so that the good news of salvation may be announced to everyone.
The new story, which begins today, is under the banner of universality: in a few verses the adjective “all” recurs four times: all power, all people, all that I have ordered every day (Mt 28:18-20).
All that Jesus “possesses”, that is, His relationship of love in the Trinity, can now pass on to all men, through the disciples who will keep close at heart announcing all that the Lord has said to them.
No more will anyone be excluded from this grace, for the Lord of glory is the He who approaches every man: this is the power given to him.