A few weeks ago we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension. Here is the reading we heard read.
Mt 28: 16 – 20
16The eleven disciples set out for Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had arranged to meet them. 17When they saw him they fell down before him, though some hesitated. 18Jesus came up and spoke to them. He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations; baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and on the Holy Spirit, 20and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.
What do you find strange about this reading? Read it again carefully and you will find that there is no mention of the Ascension. The Ascension only appears in Luke’s Gospel. He has it take place on Easter Sunday and then writes about it in Acts of the Apostles where it takes place forty days after Easter. “But Mark has it,” you may exclaim. You are quite right, but remember that originally Mark’s Gospel ended in verse eight with the women saying nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mk 16: 8) What follows this was added and has obviously been copied from Luke.
So why did Matthew choose to conclude his Gospel with this story? Certainly we have here the commissioning of the disciples. Jesus began his mission in Galilee and he hands it on to others in Galilee. Throughout this Gospel we see Jesus ministering to the Jewish community. “He went around all Galilee.” (4: 23) Here there seems to be a shift, “Go .. to all nations.” Not so! “And great crowds from Galilee; the Decapolis; Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan followed him.” The places in bold print were Pagan. In other words Jesus went “beyond” Israel to the whole world. He healed the Centurion’s servant (8: 13), the Canaanite woman’s daughter (15: 28) and told us to “give witness before the pagans.” (10: 18)
All Jesus’ disciples are told to: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations; baptise them .. and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. This includes us.
In the closing words of the Gospel we receive the assurance, “I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.” (28: 20) This re-affirms two earlier promises, “They shall name him, Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us,” (1: 23) and “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (18: 20)
It is interesting to note that Matthew is following the pattern found in the account of the missioning of Moses, Jeremiah and Isaiah. “Go now! I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt,” says God to Moses. Moses, like the disciples hesitates or doubts, “Who am I that I should go?” God replied, “I will be with you .. you will worship God on this mountain.” (Ex3: 10 – 12) Surely there is much food for thought for us, here.
If we read Mt 28: 16 -20 carefully we become aware that Matthew is giving us a brief summary of the main points in his Gospel. He opens with, “ The eleven disciples.” There are two groups mentioned here, the eleven and disciples. For Matthew the large group of disciples was very important. He speaks of them seventy three times. Twice the women were told to “Go tell my brothers.” And then there were the Eleven. Here is Jesus founding community, and all are included.
Mountains are symbolically very important in Jesus’ life. He is on a mountain when he rejects the temptation of money and power. (4: 10) It is on a mountain that he instructs his followers. (5: 1) He goes to the mountain to pray, (14: 23) and there he heals and nourishes people. (15: 31 and 32)
His transfiguration takes place on a mountain. (17: 1 – 9)
Jesus leaves us in no doubt about the role he has in mind for us when he tells us;
“You are the light of the world.
A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father. (5: 14 and 16)
Even after hearing all these beautiful thoughts, some, possibly all, the disciples hesitated or doubted. They were battling to believe that Jesus was truly risen and present in their lives. Let us not be too critical of them. Are there events in your life in which you can recognize the hand of God? Am I aware of the Risen Christ active in my life today.