This Sunday rounds out the seven Sundays of Easter, the season of the Church’s celebration of the resurrection and its meaning for Christian life. At the same time, this Sunday, coming between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday, focuses on the transition between the departure of Jesus’ physical presence to his followers and the birth of the Church with the end-time outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Granted that we later generations of Christians live in an era long after Pentecost, but there is something about this transitional moment, which Luke symbolizes as a ten-day segue, that can help us understand our own moment in salvation history.
Sunday’s First Reading gives us Luke’s snapshot of the apostles and other disciples gathered in prayer in that interval of time. While they were still gaping at the sky after the ascension, angels sent them back into the rest of history with a jibe: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?”
Instinctively, they gather with the rest of the little band of disciples in the upper room, where some of them had shared the Last Supper with their master. Luke will note that they number about 120. This numeric note is more than mere census; the multiple of twelve underscores Luke’s conviction that this Jerusalem community begins to fulfill the ancient expectation that “the Age to Come” would entail the restoration of Israel.
The list of eleven disciples is conspicuous for the absence of Judas. The first agenda item for this post-ascension community will be the restoration of the core group to the number twelve, showing the apostolic concern for restoring the number to the very meaning of Jesus’ original choice of a symbolic Twelve. The mention of “Mary the mother of Jesus” recalls the only other times Luke refers to Jesus’ mother by name: the accounts of the conception (Lk 1:27) and the birth (Lk 2:5) of Jesus. The mention of Mary by name here in Acts underscores the fact that a new birth in the power of the Spirit is about to occur, the birth of the Church on Pentecost. Like Jesus praying after the baptism in the Jordan River, just before a manifestation of the Holy Spirit in his life, the 120 in the upper room “devoted themselves with one accord to prayer.” (Lk 1:14)
Though we live long after Pentecost, Luke’s passage reminds us of some perennial realities about being Church. Though life in the community of faith requires plenty of nitty-gritty administrative tasks (like electing a replacement for Judas), at the end of the day, the Church takes its life from an act of God. Like the birth of Jesus itself, the Church is conceived and brought to birth by the Holy Spirit. As in its inception, the continued life of the Church demands ongoing communal prayer and openness to the Spirit, never forgetting that we always pray with Mary.
It is curious that in his two-volume work Luke tells the story of the Ascension twice (Lk 24; Acts 1). Each narration brings out a different aspect. This account in Acts looks forward to the future, to the inauguration of the church’s mission and the final return of the ascending One.
The earliest Church expected only a brief interval between the Ascension and the parousia, an interval that would be marked by the apostles’ mission to Israel and by persecution and martyrdom. But now salvation history is greatly extended. We know that Paul modified it to include the mission to the Gentiles. For Luke, the Church is here to stay, with a mission to the whole civilized world. But the hope of the parousia is still maintained, and the church’s mission is viewed as a preparation for the end—but not alone – for Jesus has promised that he is with us always—to the end of the age.