Gospel for the Feast of the Ascension (24 May 2020)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20 – NRSV)
The ending is also the beginning. The Christian community is a missionary community:
“In his concluding paragraph (which is peculiar to this Evangelist) Matthew tells of Jesus’ meeting his disciples in Galilee and of the charge he gave them to make disciples of all the nations and to baptize them in the name of the Trinity. Many scholars have raised doubts over parts of this section, particularly over the use of the Trinitarian formula for baptism. But the arguments are all subjective: there is nothing else with which to compare the passage, and textually it is well attested. And it is very important.
As Johnson puts it, ‘No part of the Bible, with the possible exception of the letter to the Romans, has done more to give Christians the vision of a world-wide church. It has sent them to all nations, bearing the message of salvation through Christ, with which are linked the responsibility and privilege of obeying his words.’ We must bear in mind that the picture of Jesus as a Jewish rabbi, with a little group of disciples around him, traveling in leisurely fashion in rural Galilee contrasts sharply with the missionary-minded church that we find in the early chapters of Acts. From the beginning the church exercised a missionary function and sought to make disciples out of those who listened to its proclamation. Why this sudden and dramatic change? Surely it is the fact of the resurrection of Jesus, coupled with the charge the risen Lord gave to his followers to make disciples of all nations” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 743-744).
eleven disciples: Acknowledging that Judas is no longer there. Matthew reports the suicide of Judas – see Matt 27:3–10. Luke reports the suicide and the replacement of Judas – see Acts 1:12–26.
Galilee: Where it all began – see Matthew 2:23, 3:13, 4:12 & 15 and 4:18-25.
mountain: “Speculation about which mountain it was is pointless”. (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 414.) Mountains are places of divine encounters – see for example Exodus 24:15. Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount – see 5:1-7:29 – and the transfiguration – see 17:1.
When they saw him, they worshiped him: The emphasis is on the second phrase: “they worshipped him”. The verb proskyneō may be translated as “worship” or “do homage”. Matthew uses the same verb –– in 2:2, 8 & 11 (“‘we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage’” etc), 4:9-10 (“(the devil) said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’”). This is the first time the disciples “worship” Jesus, suggesting that they have now discovered something that both Gentiles and the devil knew all along – Jesus is the Son of God.
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me: “With this claim the risen Jesus accepts what is said about the ‘one like a Son of Man’ in Dan 7:14: ‘And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him....’” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 414.)
make disciples of all nations: “In Jesus’ final command Matthew’s favorite term mathētēs (‘disciple’) is made into a verb (‘make disciples’). Does the phrase panta ta ethnē refer to the Gentiles (non-Jews) or does it include Israel also (‘the nations’)? Several lines of argument point to it as referring to Gentiles only: the use of Greek ethnē and Hebrew gôyîm at the time, the uses of ethnos/ethnē elsewhere in Matthew, the use of panta ta ethnē to refer to Gentiles (Matt 24:9, 14; 25:32), the theology that the gospel be preached to Jews first (Matt 10:5), and patristic interpretations.” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 414.)
baptizing them: “There has been no preparation for mention of baptism up to this point. The Trinitarian formula accompanying Jesus’ command adds to the suspicion that the risen Jesus’ language has been shaped in light of the experience of the early Church, in this case by a baptismal formula (see Didache 7:1–3).” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 415.)
The English word “baptism” comes from the Greek verb baptizein or baptein meaning “to immerse” or “to wash”.
Ritual washing was part of the Jewish tradition. In the Sifre, a rabbinic commentary on chapters 14-15 of the Book of Numbers we read of the practice of ritual bathing for a pagan becoming a Jew.
The Qumran documents tell us of the Essenes – a group of zealots dating at least from the 1st century BC – who took baths of purification before eating or before speaking with a superior.
Indeed, ritual bathing is found in other religious traditions – for example, the Hindus bathing in the Ganges.
Some scholars have suggested that John the Baptizer had belonged to the Essene community. The men who were to become the apostles of Jesus received baptism from John – a rite of purification and forgiveness of sins. Thus John had said: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16-17)
It is uncertain whether Jesus actually “baptized” anyone in this way. (See John 3:22-23; 4:1-3.)
In the apostolic community baptism of water is conferred “in the name of Jesus” (see Acts 2:38; 10:48; 19:5; 22:16; see also 1Corinthians1:13-16; 6:11; Galatians 3:27; Romans 6:3).
The Trinitarian formula – “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” – does not become part of the Latin rite of baptism until the end of the 7th century.
From the very beginning, baptism is also associated with instruction so that the baptized know what they are doing. One scholar writes: “We can find a certain process of evangelization in the Acts of the Apostles. Even though in the case of the eunuch baptized by Philip (Acts 8:26-39) the catechesis was very brief, we can nevertheless see a catechetical plan. For example, in Acts 10:37-43, which must be linked to Paul's sermons (16:31-32; 17:22-31; 19:2-5), everything is centered on the person of Jesus now alive and as salvation. The emphasis is more on this salvation than on a doctrine. The wonders accomplished signify the very presence of Jesus in the community, in the midst of its members (Acts 2:14-19). He is the fulfillment of the prophets (Acts 3:18,21,24,25); he is described as the center of the world (Acts 3:20-21) and its reconstruction in its primordial unity. He is the author of life. Belief in Jesus means acceptance of the message he brought. At the heart of this message is his person, the object of faith. Therefore, to believe means to adhere to Jesus as Lord through radical conversion. This is the necessary condition for admission to baptism (Acts 2:42; 8:12, etc). Reception of baptism is a public liturgical act that expresses faith and concretizes it in the sacrament. (Adrien Nocent OSB, “Christian Initiation During the First Four Centuries” in Anscar J Chupungco, editor, Handbook for Liturgical Studies – Volume IV: Sacraments and Sacramentals, A Pueblo Book, 2000, 8.)
For obvious reasons, baptism was applied to adults or, at least, those old enough to understand what was happening in the ritual.
Baptism was conferred in the early centuries by immersion – as the very word indicates.
As time went by the ritual of baptism was influenced by new circumstances. For example, the very first to become disciples were, for the most part, Jews who probably had some expectation of the Messiah. As the generations went by and Christianity spread, many from varying backgrounds and careers sought admission to the community. If they were attracted to the way of life, they first had to seek out a sponsor who would accompany them through a period of moral formation – usually several years – before they could be baptized. And if they were prostitutes or pimps, makers of idols, actors or entertainers, gladiators or soldiers, they would have to find new professions before they would be accepted for baptism.
The lengthy period of preparation was known as “catechumenate” – from the Greek word meaning “instruction”. Although the instruction was not so much doctrinal as ethical. Until the year 313 AD – when Constantine declared peace for Christians – part of the sponsors role with regard to the candidate was to make sure he/she was reliable. Because of the danger of persecution until that time, outsiders were told little about the sacred mysteries or the meeting places.
In the early centuries a serious question arose: If baptism was necessary for salvation – as both Scripture and the early teachers taught – then what of those who died without being baptized? Thus the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century chose to remain a catechumen until he was about to die.
By the year 200 it was common for both children and adults to be baptized and for baptisms to take place fairly regularly within the community. In northern Africa in the 3rd century, given the high infant mortality rate and the belief in the necessity of baptism for salvation, it became common practice to baptize children the week after they born. Largely due to the influence of Augustine’s teaching on original sin, infant baptism had become a universal practice within the Western Church by the end of the 5th century.
Until the beginning of the 4th century there was no fully developed and universal teaching on baptism apart from the belief that it brought the forgiveness of sins, that it gave God’s grace, that it imparted the Holy Spirit and that it was not to be repeated.
During the 4th century the teaching on baptism became more explicitly Pauline. One of the greatest teachers from this era – Cyril of Jerusalem – reflects the writings of St Paul when he says: “having been baptized into Christ and having put on Christ you have been conformed to the Son of God, for God predestined us to be adopted sons and make us to share the likeness of Christ’s glorious body”.
During the 4th century it was no longer necessary to be secretive about Christian gatherings and catechumens were allowed to attend the Sunday liturgies up to the Scripture readings and homily.
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Cambridge friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1833 at the age of 22. As a tribute to his friend, Tennyson wrote a long poem, In Memoriam, which was published in 1850. Two pieces of that poem are particularly well known. The first: “'Tis better to have loved and lost, Than never to have loved at all”. The second: “There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds”. It is this second piece that sheds light beautifully on today’s Gospel – Matthew 28:16-20 – where we meet, once again, a reference to what seems to have been a feature of life for those first disciples: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted”.
Tennyson voices a common thought, that “doubt is Devil born”. He then goes on to speak of his friend: “one indeed I knew/ In many a subtle question versed,/ Who touch'd a jarring lyre at first,/ But ever strove to make it true:/ Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,/ At last he beat his music out./ There lives more faith in honest doubt,/ Believe me, than in half the creeds.”
“Honest doubt” reminds us of Jesus’ promise: “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32) – yes, even the truth of doubt. Tennyson then adds: “He fought his doubts and gather'd strength,/ He would not make his judgment blind,/ He faced the spectres of the mind/ And laid them: thus he came at length/ To find a stronger faith his own;/ And Power was with him in the night,/ Which makes the darkness and the light,/ And dwells not in the light alone,/ But in the darkness and the cloud,/ As over Sinaï's peaks of old,/ While Israel made their gods of gold,/ Altho' the trumpet blew so loud.”
If we are truthful, our capacity to see and hear God at work in and around us, is evolving. It is always incomplete because it is always coming up against the “more than”. Doubt is not “Devil born” but a normal part of our God-given, God-hungry hearts and minds. Children are very much at home with that range of experiences that are healthy part of our being human, pilgrims on a journey – wonder, awe, not knowing, doubting, questioning, searching. Perhaps this is one reason why Jesus would have said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
Faith and doubt necessarily go together. There would be no place for faith if there was no place for doubt. Perhaps the real issue is that we are self-focused and being self-focused we want to feel as though we are in control? Doubt is then a threat. What if we were utterly God-focused? Would doubt matter?
Tennyson again: “We have but faith: we cannot know;/ For knowledge is of things we see/ And yet we trust it comes from thee,/ A beam in darkness: let it grow.”