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From the early days of salvation history, clouds have been signs of the glory of God. This Sunday (Ascension Sunday, Year A, for most of the United States) is no different.
A cloud represented the visits by God to Moses in Exodus, for instance, when he led them across the Red Sea and when he gave them the Ten Commandments. When the cloud was there, it meant God was with the Israelites, and that he was providing his protection.
The story of the Ascension in the first reading ends when Jesus himself enters the cloud and does not return, making it clear that he himself was the heavenly visitor this time; he even says that “all power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
There are many parallels with the Old Testament here. Mount Sinai is the place where the Almighty gathered Israel beneath his cloud to receive the Ten Commandments. The Mount of Olives is the place where Jesus gathers the Church to receive the Great Commission: “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.”
Just like the mountain focal points of the Old Testament, the Mount of Olives was a focal point throughout the life of Christ. It was here that he wept over Jerusalem, it was here he taught about the Last Judgment and the reign of Mercy in Matthew 24-25. And it was here he spent the night in prayer before he forgave and dismissed the woman caught in adultery.
In other words, the Mount of Olives is a symbol of Jesus’ mission of suffering for our sins. He stressed this on the night before he died, as the guilt of our sins bore down on him and he asked the apostles to join him at the Mount of Olives in prayer.
That night, they failed him.
So when he gives them a new mission on the Mount of Olives, they would be all the more eager to fulfill it: “As the Father has sent me, even I send you,” he tells them in the Gospel. “
Just as the Ten Commandments opened a new era in salvation history for Moses and the Israelites, the Great Commission begins a new day for the Church. God once dealt with his people through the law: Now he is dealing with them in person. God once gave them rules to follow to draw them out from all the nations: Now he is giving them the world and asking them to convert the hearts of every nation.
He promises not to leave it all up to them, though.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” he says, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Just as a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire showed God’s presence to Moses in the Old Testament, the apostles at the Ascension experienced the cloud — and would, at Pentecost, experience the fire.
We pray and wait for that same presence and power.