Happy Ascension Thursday, maybe! In some parts of the US, we celebrate Ascension Thursday today. In other parts of the US (including here in Virginia), we celebrate Ascension Thursday on Sunday. Depending on where they are on Thursday and Sunday, travelers may celebrate today twice, or not at all. It’s a mess. I agree with Fr. Z’s criticisms of the decision of many U.S. dioceses to celebrate on Sunday, because:
- Acts 1:3 shows that the time between Easter Sunday and the Ascension was exactly forty days.
- The nine days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday is the basis for the Catholic “novena,” in which we pray intensely about something for nine days. For those nine days, we see the Apostles and Mary deep in prayer (Acts 1:14) until the Holy Spirit finally descended upon them on Pentecost (Acts 2:4).
- In addition, as one of the commenters on Fr. Z’s post noted, there’s a fascinating parallel between Ascension Thursday and Holy Thursday, between Christ’s ascension into Heaven and the Eucharist which “comes down from Heaven” (John 6:50). Jesus draws this parallel explicitly in John 6:61-62 when His followers couldn’t stomach the Real Presence: “Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!” (John 6:61-62).
- Dioceses which celebrate Ascension on Sunday are trying to “lower the bar” so that people will do the bare minimum. But those churches which progressively lower the bar end up hemorrhaging members, and frequently end up watering down the faith. Look at the fastest-growing faiths, and you’ll see that people want to be engaged spiritually. Fr. Belli, one of the priests here in northern Virginia, used to describe the efforts of WWII nurses — they were short on morphine, so they’d mix it with water, so it could reach more people. Despite their good intentions, the result was that the watered-down morphine wasn’t helping anyone. Likewise, a watered-down message that reaches a lot of people does less good than a solid message which reaches only a few. So even if it weren’t true that challenging people spiritually is a great way to increase the flock, it’d still be the right thing to do.
All that said, it’s no sin to celebrate Ascension on Sunday, that the bishop is prince of his diocese, and that the decision to celebrate it on Sunday is generally motivated by the best of intentions. So we should rejoice in a wonderful Church solemnity, regardless of when we end up celebrating it.
Much more troubling is the Gospel reading for Ascension, from Matthew 28:16-20. It’s a great passage, but the NAB does a bad job of translating it:
The eleven disciples went to Galilee,
to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.
When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.
Then Jesus approached and said to them,
“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
So in the NAB, it reads as if all Eleven Disciples doubted Jesus at this appearance in Galilee. That’s pretty baffling, given that the previous verse says that “Jesus had ordered them” to meet Him there.
At Mass, you don’t have any footnotes explaining what’s going on in the text. But in the NAB itself, there’s a footnote here which says in part: “But they doubted: the Greek can also be translated, ‘but some doubted.’” And then you can look at virtually every other English-language translation of the Bible, and see that they all say “but some doubted.” From the KJV to the Douay-Reihms to the NIV, Bibles which are both technical and easy-to-read, Protestant Bibles, Catholic Bibles, and on and on, they all translate it “but some doubted.” Why?
Because it wasn’t the Apostles who were doubting. There are two ways we can know this. The first is the Greek grammar. Craig Blomberg notes in his commentary on this verse:
There is no clear evidence that more than the Eleven were present, but the particular grammatical construction hoi de (“but some”) does seem to imply a change of subject from the previous clause (“they worshiped him”). So “they” probably means some of the Eleven, while “some” means the rest of the eleven. Some of the disciples worshiped Jesus at once: some were less sure how to react.
I’ve mentioned before that just because the Gospel writers describe a certain person or group of people at the scene, it doesn’t mean they were alone. And the Greek here suggests that Matthew is saying that they weren’t alone, and while the Eleven came as commanded and worshiped, others doubted.
This shoehorns perfectly with the second proof, the surrounding Scriptural evidence. Look at the verse immediately prior to the one in question: “The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.” Look at every other post-Resurrection appearance. Jesus always meets the believers unexpectedly — appearing in a locked room, showing up on the road to Emmaus, etc. They’re never looking for Him or expecting Him to arrive. This appearance is different. Jesus orders them to meet Him at a specific mountain in Galilee. And there’s quite a build-up to this Galilean appearance. In Matthew 28:5-7, the angel says to the women at the Empty Tomb:
“Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
We hear the same thing in Mark 16:6-7. In fact, Jesus personally prophesied this particular Galilean appearance in Mark 14:28. William Lane Craig argues that this appearance is the appearance to the “five hundred brethren” which Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 15:6, and I think that’s almost certainly right. When an angel at the Empty Tomb announces that Jesus is going to appear in Galilee, and Jesus Himself tells the Apostles exactly when and where He’ll appear, it’s reasonable to expect that’s going to draw a crowd: a crowd of both believers and skeptics.
So all of the grammatical and Scriptural evidence points to the same thing: Jesus planned one big public post-Resurrection appearance for anyone with enough faith or curiosity to show up. Hundreds of people show up, including some five hundred who would become believers, and a number of skeptics. Many come to worship Christ, but some doubted.
That’s a beautiful message, and it shows an unforced harmony between Matthew, Mark, and Paul. They are apparently all describing the same thing, but none of them go into any great length (Mark only mentions it as a future event, without ever describing its fulfillment; only Matthew actually describes the appearance or mentions the presence of the Eleven there; only Paul numbers the believers). This is exactly what we would expect from a true story: nobody’s spinning a yarn, there are just passing references to some event with which these writers were all familiar. In contrast, the NAB’s decision to contradict apparently every other English-language Bible destroys that message, and makes it sound as if the Apostles themselves (all Eleven of them) doubted Christ, well after the Resurrection. That translation doesn’t harmonize with the Gospels.