Jesus said to his disciples: ‘You see how it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to this. ‘And now I am sending down to you what the Father has promised. Stay in the city then, until you are clothed with the power from on high.’ Then he took them out as far as the outskirts of Bethany, and lifting up his hands be blessed them. Now as he blessed them, he withdrew from them and was carried up heaven. They worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy; and they were continually in the Temple praising God.
Although the Gospel accounts of the Ascension vary, each does depict Jesus’ assurance to the disciples that the Father will send a helper, an advocate, the Paraclete – the Holy Spirit. In this way we are prepared for the celebration of Pentecost Sunday.
Luke’s account of the Ascension immediately proceeds Jesus’ journey with the two men on the road to Emmaus and his meeting with the disciples as they listened to the men recall this event. Joining the group, Jesus attempts to allay their fears “peace be with you” (24:36). The feelings of terror that he might be a ghost only abated when Jesus showed them the wounds that disfigured his hands and feet (24:40). As with the two men on the road to Emmaus Jesus was to reveal that he was the Risen Lord, the Messiah, the fulfilment of prophecy. To do this he needed to “open their minds to Scripture” (24:45). Scripture of course revealed that Jesus was to be betrayed, crucified, die and ultimately rise from the dead after three days. Like Matthew, Luke went to great lengths to show that some key events in the life of Jesus were foreshadowed in Scripture. This was especially important for the early Christian communities as there was some disbelief and scepticism in the Resurrection.
Whilst the Gospels of Matthew and Mark have a great commissioning of the disciples to “go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News to all creation” (Mk 16:16) Luke’s account is far more subtle as he merely asks them to be witnesses to what he has told them and to his life. At first glance this might not seem very challenging however an understanding of the term witness reveals that Luke’s Risen Lord commissioned the disciples in the same way as that depicted in the other Gospels except that the words themselves were different.
Today we associate a witness as someone who gives testimony to events that they have viewed or experienced. The disciples could certainly have done this. In Church Tradition however witness has more significant and powerful connotations, evoking a notion of martyrdom. Within the early Church many Christians gave witness to their beliefs through their martyrdom. Christ’s chosen disciples exemplified this. Today however we are not called to give up our lives in a physical sense but at the same time we are reminded by Christ that “if anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34).
Like the disciples we are called to be witnesses to the Risen Lord in word, deed and in faith. Like the disciples, we are called to be witnesses who are “full of joy“.