FATHER KOCH: Preparing for the coming of the Holy Spirit

May 10, 2024 at 9:00 a.m.
The fresco of Ascension of the Lord in the church Basilica della Santissima Annunziata del Vastato by Giovanni Carlone (1590–1630).
The fresco of Ascension of the Lord in the church Basilica della Santissima Annunziata del Vastato by Giovanni Carlone (1590–1630). (Renata Sedmakova)


Gospel reflection for May 12, 2024, Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke suggests a 40-day period after the Resurrection where Jesus periodically appeared to the disciples, and that on the 40th day he takes his final leave from them as he returns to the Father and is enthroned in the heavenly realm.

The Church has consistently pondered what happened during that 40-day period and the uniqueness of the Resurrection appearances. It appears that Jesus spent that time instructing the disciples and preparing them for their ministry. For our part, we have spent this time since Easter preparing ourselves for the work which the Lord has left us to do in his name.

Each one of the Gospel writers treats this period of what we observe liturgically as the Easter Season with a different emphasis, yet there is a strong cohesion that presents a coherent narrative.

The Gospel we hear this year on Ascension is a bit unusual. The passage comes from the final chapter of Mark’s Gospel, but in a section that scholars over the years, including St. Jerome, recognize as not part of the original Gospel.

Apparently unsettled by the original ending (verse eight), various scribalists added less jarring endings probably in the second century. There are three various endings, which are all placed together at the end of the Gospel.

The ending we hear seems to reflect the formula from Matthew, or perhaps even the citation of an ancient creed. Jesus ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of the father. Although the passage speaks of the mission to baptize this ending, unlike Matthew’s commission of the apostles, lacks the Trinitarian formula, emphasizing instead the necessity of belief and Baptism as the key to eternal salvation.

Jesus also instructs the disciples to do what they had previously done as he sent them forth earlier in the Gospel: to drive out demons and to heal the sick. This is accompanied by the promise of glossolalia -- speaking in tongues -- which is a gift given to them at Pentecost.

There is one more hallmark, though, that has left believers bewildered and has caused some heresy over the years: “They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.”

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells his disciples that they have been given power over snakes and scorpions. This is done within the context of exorcising demons, similar to what we see here. While there is a passage in the Acts of the Apostles where St. Paul is bitten by a viper but not harmed, the Greek there is more ambiguous, and is not necessarily a fulfillment of this promise.

There is no parallel to drinking poison and not being harmed in any New Testament passage. While an ancient tradition holds that an attempt to poison St. John was unsuccessful, it is not mentioned in the Scriptures. Some others, such as St. Benedict of Nursia suffered no ill-effects of poisoning, such purely singular events would not suffice the fulfillment of a promise.

Even glossolalia is a rare and not common event.

So, what is the promise then, that Jesus makes?

It is more likely that the author here intended Jesus to promise the disciples that they had power over sin and death. The serpent represents temptation and sin in the scriptural imagination, and poison is a sign of death. In expelling demons and in proffering Baptism to the believers, the disciples have power over sin and death.

As Jesus promised, he does not leave his disciples, or now the Church, without the tools necessary to bring about the Kingdom of God and to exercise his power and speak with his authority.

The Ascension of Jesus closed one phase of the mission of salvation begun at the Incarnation and accomplished through the Paschal event as it opened the new phase of salvation accomplished, as we celebrate next Sunday, with the empowerment of the apostles with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.


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Gospel reflection for May 12, 2024, Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke suggests a 40-day period after the Resurrection where Jesus periodically appeared to the disciples, and that on the 40th day he takes his final leave from them as he returns to the Father and is enthroned in the heavenly realm.

The Church has consistently pondered what happened during that 40-day period and the uniqueness of the Resurrection appearances. It appears that Jesus spent that time instructing the disciples and preparing them for their ministry. For our part, we have spent this time since Easter preparing ourselves for the work which the Lord has left us to do in his name.

Each one of the Gospel writers treats this period of what we observe liturgically as the Easter Season with a different emphasis, yet there is a strong cohesion that presents a coherent narrative.

The Gospel we hear this year on Ascension is a bit unusual. The passage comes from the final chapter of Mark’s Gospel, but in a section that scholars over the years, including St. Jerome, recognize as not part of the original Gospel.

Apparently unsettled by the original ending (verse eight), various scribalists added less jarring endings probably in the second century. There are three various endings, which are all placed together at the end of the Gospel.

The ending we hear seems to reflect the formula from Matthew, or perhaps even the citation of an ancient creed. Jesus ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of the father. Although the passage speaks of the mission to baptize this ending, unlike Matthew’s commission of the apostles, lacks the Trinitarian formula, emphasizing instead the necessity of belief and Baptism as the key to eternal salvation.

Jesus also instructs the disciples to do what they had previously done as he sent them forth earlier in the Gospel: to drive out demons and to heal the sick. This is accompanied by the promise of glossolalia -- speaking in tongues -- which is a gift given to them at Pentecost.

There is one more hallmark, though, that has left believers bewildered and has caused some heresy over the years: “They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.”

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells his disciples that they have been given power over snakes and scorpions. This is done within the context of exorcising demons, similar to what we see here. While there is a passage in the Acts of the Apostles where St. Paul is bitten by a viper but not harmed, the Greek there is more ambiguous, and is not necessarily a fulfillment of this promise.

There is no parallel to drinking poison and not being harmed in any New Testament passage. While an ancient tradition holds that an attempt to poison St. John was unsuccessful, it is not mentioned in the Scriptures. Some others, such as St. Benedict of Nursia suffered no ill-effects of poisoning, such purely singular events would not suffice the fulfillment of a promise.

Even glossolalia is a rare and not common event.

So, what is the promise then, that Jesus makes?

It is more likely that the author here intended Jesus to promise the disciples that they had power over sin and death. The serpent represents temptation and sin in the scriptural imagination, and poison is a sign of death. In expelling demons and in proffering Baptism to the believers, the disciples have power over sin and death.

As Jesus promised, he does not leave his disciples, or now the Church, without the tools necessary to bring about the Kingdom of God and to exercise his power and speak with his authority.

The Ascension of Jesus closed one phase of the mission of salvation begun at the Incarnation and accomplished through the Paschal event as it opened the new phase of salvation accomplished, as we celebrate next Sunday, with the empowerment of the apostles with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.

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