Jesus told his disciples: “It is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things… Then he led them out as far as Bethany, raised his hands, and blessed them. As he blessed them, he parted from them and was taken up to heaven. Gospel for Ascension Sunday.
There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple, but bowed before God night and day with fasting and prayer. Coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem. Luke 2:36-38
I said to him, “Who are those whom I have seen on the four sides, and who words I have heard and written down? He replied, ‘the first is the merciful, the patient, the holy Michael. The second is he who presides over every suffering and every affliction of the sons of men, the holy Raphael. The third, who presides over all that is powerful, is Gabriel. The fourth, who presides over repentance, and the hope of those who will inherit eternal life, is Phanuel. These are the four angels of the Most High God, and their four voices, which at that time I heard. Enoch 40:8-9
Our Gospel of Luke begins preaching Teshuvah, Penance, turning back to God where this Teshuvah has supernatural implications. Phanuel, Penance, is one of the very voices of God.
Luke continues his Gospel, “John the Baptist went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, (Descent) proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one crying out, in the desert prepare the way of the NAME, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation/Joshua/Jesus of God.”
The rule and life of the Secular Franciscans is this: to observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people. Christ, the gift of the Father’s love, is the way to him, the truth into which the Holy Spirit leads us, and the life, which he has come to give abundantly. Secular Franciscans should devote themselves especially to careful reading of the Gospel, going from Gospel to life, and Life to the Gospel… United by their vocation as brothers and sisters of penance, and motivated by the dynamic power of the Gospel, let them conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the Gospel itself calls conversion.”
For conversion to make sense, it must be conversion from something and to something. Our Gospel points the way. Jesus leads the people to Bethany, the Beth, House, of Anne poverty. The voice cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the NAME. As John continues he is not talking about the long march of the Jewish people from Babylon to Eretz Israel. The crowd is already in Eretz Israel. He talks about preparing in the wilderness. The ancient church fathers wrote from the wilderness of Egypt, taking their cue from this passage. John speaks of making our paths straight, then of filling the valleys, those who are poor, by making every mountain and hill, low. This is redistribution of resources at its finest. This is making all people equal.
This is not the only important pun relevant to the discussion. In a few weeks we will read about the Ascension of our Lord. We will read about he rises at Bethany, in Hebrew, House of poverty. In Mark 14:62 we read, “The high priest/Cohen/official asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?” Jesus answered, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” The word for clouds is “Any,” the same word used in “Bethany,” to mean poverty. We read how Jesus will come in the clouds.
The priests, the ruling officials of Jesus’ day and ours, hear, “poor.” They hear, “You will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the poor of heaven.” These are revolutionary, fighting words. When we do not care for the least of these among us, Jesus tells us, this is what we can expect. Jesus comes with the poor.
In Catholic interpretation of Scripture we speak of a four-fold sense. These are, the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the mystical. We likewise speak of type and allegory. The literal reading is the one we believe when we recite the Creed, “Christ has died; Christ has Risen; Christ will come again. Christ will literally come in the clouds. This is very close to the one the rabbis heard when they hear Jesus speaking of the Son of Man coming in the clouds/the poor.
There is another meaning. The Hebrew scholars call this Remez/type. The image Luke wants us to see in Acts is Remez/type. The type comes from Exodus 33:9-11 “As Moses entered the tent, the column of cloud would come down and stand at its entrance while the NAME spoke with Moses. On seeing the column of cloud stand at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down at the entrance of their own tents. The NAME used to speak to Moses face to face, as a person speaks to a friend. Moses would then return to the camp, but his young assistant, Joshua, son of Nun, never left the tent.”
“Nun,” is the Hebrew word for a fish. The ancient middle letters of the alphabet were Mem, which means water and was in the shape of a wave, and “Nun,” which meant fish, and was in the shape of a fish hook. Nineveh means fish city. Joshua, son of Nun, is Jesus, who hangs around fishermen and serves fish and bread to the people. Jesus comes in the cloud, just as God descended in the cloud to speak to the people in the Tent of Meeting. Jesus and God come to us when we meditate upon Scripture. This is why our Secular Franciscan Rule speaks to us about going from Gospel to life and from Life to the Gospel. It is one of constant reading and penance.
When we read Torah and Gospel, we see that it is about God rescuing Israel, those who struggle with God. It is about rescuing Hebrews. Hebrew is Hebrew for homeless. It is about rescuing the homeless and the poor from evil, the Hebrew word for evil is Russia, and refers to those thinking themselves first, employers, and employers who are state officials/Pharaoh. The Gospels are about rescuing the poor from the Pharisees and Sadducees, government officials in the Roman and Jewish government, and unscrupulous employers who exploited their charges for all they were worth.
When Jesus comes in the cloud, it refers to Exodus 33:9-11. It refers to coming to Sinai early and often and meditating upon our rescue. When we do this, the rough are made smooth, and the valleys are filled.
The rough are to be made smooth. What comes to mind is scrub cattle, made rough by the rough lives society forces them to live in. They are made smooth. This comes from learning to trust again. This comes from being filled with adequate food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, and transportation again. Then they can become civil, no longer mean, vulgar/common, but special in the eyes of God, and each other again. It is only then that we can return to Jerusalem, from Jeru/City, of Shalom/Peace. This is the great Teshuvah of which Jesus and John speak.