Here’s a little taste of the Creed book I’m working on:
The Resurrection appearances of Jesus culminate in an abrupt end after forty days when, as the Creed puts it, Jesus “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
The Ascension in Scripture
The Ascension occupies a curious place in biblical teaching in that it is frequently alluded to in the New Testament, but only rarely described there as an historical event. That does not mean the New Testament writers doubt its historicity. On the contrary, they talk as though everybody in the conversation takes it for granted as having occurred and are now talking about other things in light of it. So, for instance, John, writing sixty years after the Ascension, records Jesus remarking:
In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (John 14:2-3)
John does this secure in the knowledge that his post-Ascension readers know this refers to Jesus’ Ascension. Mention of the Ascension in this passage is not so much about where Jesus went, but about where we will be going as a result of it.
Similarly, when the high priest asks Jesus if he is the Christ, the son of the Blessed, Mark records Jesus replying, “I am; and you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62)–words that claim not only deity, but an Ascension and a Second Coming as well, because Mark knows his audience understands that Jesus is alluding to this.
Likewise, Paul alludes to the Ascension in Ephesians 4:7-10, not with a description of the apostles’ eyewitness experience, but with a citation of Psalm 68 (a poem which combines imagery of God “ascending on high” to give the law on Mount Sinai with imagery of the Ark of the Covenant “ascending on high” as it was carried in ritual procession to the Holy of Holies in the temple on Mount Zion). Here, the mention of the Ascension is meant to serve as a backdrop to Paul’s discussion of the outpouring of the Spirit that came as a result of it (of which more presently).
This habit of thinking in terms of the Ascension as Christ entering the heavenly temple is also found in the letter to the Hebrews:
Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord… For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. (Hebrews 8:1-2; 9:24)
In fact, only three places in the New Testament describe the historical event of the Ascension as it was seen by the apostles. The first and least certain of these—Mark—does so in the most cursory of words:
So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. (Mark 16:19).
Those words, while recognized as inspired and inerrant by the Church, come from a passage that most biblical scholars recognize as a sort of appendix tacked on to the original gospel, summarizing the preaching of Peter and his scribe, Mark, but probably not penned by Mark himself.
The other two places the Ascension is recounted as a story and not simply assumed as the backdrop to a discussion about something else is in Luke and its companion volume, Acts. It is worth noting the distinction between how Luke tells the same story in those two books, so we can get a sense of how biblical writers handle the information in their possession depending on what purposes they have for it.
In Luke’s gospel, the evangelist compresses his entire Resurrection narrative into the events of a single day. If he had not also written Acts, we would never have known from his gospel that Jesus did not ascend into Heaven on Easter Sunday. In Luke 24:
- the women go to the tomb
- report to the disciples that Jesus’ body is missing
- Peter runs to the tomb and finds it empty
- the disciples on the Emmaus Road encounter the risen Christ
- they return to Jerusalem that same day and find out from the Eleven that Jesus has appeared to Peter
- Jesus appears to them all
- Jesus then leads them out to Bethany, across the Kidron Valley east of Jerusalem, and is “parted from them” (Luke 24:51).
Notably, not all manuscripts include the words “and was carried up into heaven.” That means the only definite place we can discover from Luke a description of the Ascension of Jesus is from his book of Acts. And in that book, he suddenly pours out a flood of detail about the events after Easter Sunday that show us he greatly telescoped the narrative of his gospel to give us the gist, not a blow-by-blow account of the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. Indeed, it is from Acts alone in the entire New Testament that we possess everything we know about the Ascension as a historic event beyond the bare bones statement that it happened:
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God. And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:1-11)
Suddenly, we discover that Luke knew the Resurrection appearances lasted forty days. If we had only his gospel and the gospel of John to go on, somebody might easily have complained of a supposed “discrepancy” between them, with Luke narrating Easter appearances lasting one day and John narrating appearances that took place multiple times over several weeks. The moral of the story is that the evangelists are not writing modern biography or history, but are dipping into a trove of information about Jesus and relating such pieces as they deem necessary to getting across the essential facts. They are interested in giving us facts about real events, but those facts are given first in the service of revelation and only secondarily, if at all, in the interest of such mundanities as chronology or geography. Luke, as much as John, could well have written, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
Why an Ascension?
We know from the Resurrection narratives that while Jesus possesses a body that is in some sense physical and in continuity with the body that was buried on Good Friday, it is also a glorified and divinized body which manifests the powers of the New Creation. He can, for instance, appear and disappear at will. Locked doors are no obstacle to him. He possesses “indestructible life” and he “will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Hebrews 7:16; Romans 6:9). So a natural question is why any Ascension was needed at all? If he must return to his Father, why not simply disappear or fade away into whatever transcendent dimension he was going to? Indeed, if he is God, why does he need to go anywhere since presumably he is omnipresent and one place is as good as any other as far as being with his Father goes. And, some ask, are we seriously to believe that Jesus flew away into interstellar space and sat down on a literal decorated chair at the right hand of a Father who has no literal right hand?
To begin with, let us recall that God is never under any necessity. He never has to do anything. What he does he chooses to do and what he does in revelation he does for our benefit, not his. That means that the Ascension, like the rest of the drama of redemption, is also for our sake, not his. It is a sign meant for his Church to read. It points to something. But what?
Our primary clues come from the language of the New Testament, which, significantly, links the Ascension with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church. Jesus, for instance, tells us, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). Likewise, Paul links the Ascension to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that creates and sustains the Church as the body of Christ:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed back and forth and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love. (Ephesians 4:4–16).The Ascension as Process and Culmination
When we speak of the Ascension, most people have in mind the event experienced by the apostles and commemorated by the Solemnity of the Ascension forty days after Easter, the stuff related in Acts 1:1-11. But, in reality, the New Testament seems to describe something far more mysterious at work in the Ascension than simply Jesus leaving earth and returning to Heaven at the end of his forty days of Easter appearances.
Scripture, in fact, speaks of Jesus being “lifted up” or “raised up” as a sort of process or continual movement throughout the Passion and into Easter, culminating in a final moment of ultimate glorification on Ascension Thursday.
So, for instance, Jesus speaks of his crucifixion using “Ascension language” when he says, “[A]s Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15) and “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he” (John 8:28) and “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32).
He likewise uses “Ascension language” to speak of his Resurrection:
“You will all fall away because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” (Matthew 26:31-32)
And John, like Luke, telescopes the Ascension right into Easter Day. For he tells us the story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Christ on Easter morning:
Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rab-boni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (John 20:16-17)
Jesus, curiously, has “not yet ascended” on Easter morning. But by that evening he confers the Holy Spirit on his disciples (cf. John 20:22), thereby making clear that he has now, in some sense, ascended since he has already told them that the giving of the Spirit will not happen till he has ascended. And yet, very obviously, he is still with them and will appear to them for forty more days. This is a problem if the Ascension is conceived of as a single event at the end of the Resurrection appearances. But if it is seen as a process reaching from the Passion, through Easter and on to culmination in the moment of the Ascension, it comes into focus.
Perhaps the best thing to do is take Jesus at his word and look at his behavior in his Resurrection appearances. Mary Magdalene’s perfectly natural response to seeing Jesus alive appears to have been to “hold” him. Jesus gently but firmly has to command her to let go of him. Her hope is to continue the earthly relationship exactly as it had been before and his very clear message is that this will be impossible. He must go away.
Similarly, in Matthew 28:9-10, the women meet the risen Christ and take “hold of his feet” with the same result: he sends them away, back to the disciples rather than inviting them to stay there and cling to him in mere prolongation of their former earthly relationship. In the same way, Jesus demonstrates the same movement away from the apostles in the only Resurrection appearance to them that Matthew records. Like Luke, Matthew telescopes Easter, the Ascension, and Pentecost into a single moment and gives us a curious “Ascension and Pentecost scene without the Ascension and Pentecost” as the risen Christ declares that he now holds all power over heaven and earth (pure Ascension language) and sends the apostles away in the power of the Holy Spirit with the promise that he will be with them to the end of the age (pure Pentecost language).
Likewise, in Luke 24:13-35, the disciples on the Emmaus Road, not yet realizing who Jesus is, ask him to stay with them. He remains with them just long enough to take bread, bless it, break it and give it to them—in other words, to celebrate the Eucharist—and then “their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight” (Luke 24:31). When they recall the incident later, they will, with enormous significance, describe it as the moment “he was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). In other words, it is through the Eucharist that their relationship with him shall continue. It is there that he is really present henceforth.
In short, what the gospels and Acts consistently describe is a series of Easter appearances in which Jesus appears to have gone through a process of, as it were, weaning the Church from its earthly relationship with him in order to prepare his disciples for an entirely new order of relationship. He offers himself to them and assures them of his bodily resurrection, demonstrating both that the body he has is in continuity with his earthly body (proven by the empty tomb, his eating and drinking with them, and the wounds of his Passion) and also that this body is glorified and partakes of a new and divinized existence, demonstrated by his power to appear and disappear and enter through locked doors. But at the same time, he steadily scotches any hope his disciples might have of a merely endless mortal existence, precisely because his kingdom is not of this world.
The climax of Jesus’ dashing of all hopes of a never-ending earthly relationship comes at the moment of the Ascension itself, when his apostles make one last request based on such hopes, saying, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). The old dreams of merely endless prolongation of earthly relationship, but now spiced up with political power and a new Davidic kingdom with an immortal King Jesus leading the troops into battle against earthly enemies is something humans keep pestering God to give them, and the apostles are no exception. Every antichrist in history has promised his followers Heaven on earth, with perfect enjoyment of power and earthly pleasure. It is the ultimate idolatry and always leads to horror. Jesus utterly kills that dream with his reply and presses home yet again that his relationship with them, while it will absolutely continue—to the “close of the age”, in fact (Matthew 28:20)—will be of an entirely different order than it was while he was here in his mere mortal flesh:
It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).
The kingdom they fantasize about will conquer their enemies, not by force of arms or any human means, but by the power of the Spirit.
Precisely the same transformation of relationship is taught in the last—and unique—appearance of the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road to Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:1-19). When the risen and ascended Jesus appears to Saul, he does not say to him “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my followers?” He says, “Why are you persecuting me?” Saul sees the risen Christ—and then immediately ceases seeing him or anything else until Ananias is sent to baptize him and open his blinded eyes. Once again, the risen Christ moves away so that the believer can encounter him through the Spirit-filled Church and the sacraments. Jesus identifies himself completely with the Church, a mystery Paul will spend the rest of his life unpacking in his meditations on the Church that he alone in the New Testament will habitually call “the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Henceforth, our relationship with Jesus will, as Paul notes, be mediated to us through one another and through the sacraments as we become his Body, the Church, by our participation in his Body, the Eucharist.