He Lifted Up His Hands and He Blessed Them
by Thomas Smith
Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. It is the closing scene in the Gospel of Luke and is recovered again in Acts 1. Luke frames the Ascension within broader theme of blessing.
The Gospel of Luke begins with the priest Zechariah in the Jerusalem Temple. Chosen to carry the prayers of the people of God before the Altar of Incense, he is given the added honor of an angelic visitation. The Angel Gabriel tells him of a son who will be supernaturally conceived and chosen to prepare the way for the Messiah. Because of his unbelief, he was struck mute by the same angel. This is very significant, in part, because this punishment prevented him from extending his hands and offering the three-fold priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24-26 over the gathered crowd (Luke 1:22). Later, when his tongue was loosed, what came out of his mouth? Blessing! It wasn’t the priestly blessing for the people of God, but instead a heaven-directed benediction. This prayer, called the Benedictus, is still recited daily by millions around the world and beautifully recovers the themes of blessing, light and peace from that ancient blessing given to Aaron in Numbers (compare Luke 2:67-79; Numbers 6:24-26). Luke leaves us waiting for that priestly blessing for God’s people.
Interestingly, the first person to offer a blessing in Luke’s narrative is Jesus, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). In fact, Jesus will be the first and last person to offer a blessing in the physician’s Gospel. The Lord’s final blessing comes during the Ascension event, “Then he [Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51). We don’t know what blessing Jesus spoke over his dear disciples at the Ascension, but I can’t think of more fitting words than the priestly blessing that Zechariah was never able to give in Luke 1:
The Lord bless you and keep you:
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you:
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26).
Following the blessing, reversing the movements of Zechariah, Jesus, the High Priest of the new and eternal Covenant also entered a temple. He “entered, not into a sanctuary made by human hands. . . but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb 9:24) The Catechism reminds us that from this heavenly temple “Christ permanently exercises his priesthood, for he ‘always lives to make intercession’ for ‘those who draw near to God through him’” (Catechism, No 662; Heb 7:25).
No wonder there is no sign of grief on the part of the disciples at the Ascension! They know where he is going and what he will be doing. Therefore, Luke tells us, “they worshiped [Jesus], and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God (Luke 24:52). Those are our marching orders between the Ascension of Jesus and his final and definitive return: worship him in Word and Sacrament, live daily in his joy (the inner delight of knowing I am infinitely loved by God) and continually bless the Lord in the fellowship of his disciples.
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