The Feast of the Ascension
A Brief Season to Embrace a Glorious Message
The Feast of the Ascension of our Lord and Savior Jesus (celebrated on Thursday, May 13) traditionally falls forty days after the resurrection and ten days before the Feast of Pentecost which will be celebrated on Sunday, May 23. The significance of Ascension is that it underlines the exaltation of Jesus, and a fitting conclusion to his ministry. Also, it authenticates his message about his relationship with the Father and his imminent return (Greek Parousia) at a time appointed by his Father in heaven. Sadly, in the Anglican/Episcopal liturgical culture it has never held a prestigious or prominent place in the church’s liturgical calendar.
Its place in Christian tradition, however, has been securely fixed by its prominent role in Christian creeds and confessions. A myriad of creeds and confessions echo the claim of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed that Christ “ascended into heaven.”1 Although there are New Testament references and allusions to Christ’s ascension (e.g., Luke 24:50-53; John 20:17; Ephesians 4:8-10; 1 Timothy 3:16), only Acts 1 provides a full narrative of the event.
The Judea/Christian scripture (2 Kings 2:9–11) assumption story of Elijah accentuates the elevated status of its subject. Likewise, the ascension of Jesus functions to underline the exaltation of Jesus. It is the fitting conclusion to the ministry of Jesus (Luke 24:50–53). More importantly, here, it is the foundation of the church which makes the life of the church both possible and intelligible. The departure of Jesus inaugurates the beginning of the church — the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the beginning of the worldwide mission.
In addition to the significance of the ascension for Luke’s story and theology, these opening verses in Acts 1 focus as much on the response of the disciples to Jesus as they do on his words and deeds. This second section contains two parts and each one concludes with a reproof of and a promise to the disciples. In Acts 1:7–8, Jesus responds with a reproof: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority” (cf. Matthew 24:36); and a promise (Acts 1:8a): “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses.” This empowerment will enable the disciples to engage in a world-wide mission, “beginning in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (1:8b; cf. Matthew 28:19-20).
Likewise, at the conclusion of Acts 1:9–11, we read the angelic response in two parts: a reproof (1:11a): “Galileans, why are you standing (there) looking at the sky?” and a promise (1:11b): “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into the sky, will come (back) in the very same manner that you saw him go into the sky” (cf. Luke 21:27). Despite the reproaches, both dialogues end with promises to the disciples, thus inviting a favorable judgment of the disciples by the audience.
The dating of the Pentecost requires that the hiatus between Easter and Pentecost be filled — this Luke does by the forty days of instruction. Through being taught by the risen Lord, praying together with one accord, and performing the delicate and crucial task of selecting Judas’s replacement without incident, the formal features of the opening scene depict the disciples as informed, spiritually mature, and administratively equipped — all signs that they are prepared to undertake the task of worldwide mission which lies before them (cf. Matt 28:19-20).
When Jesus ascends, his ascent into heaven is described in “earth-bound” terms, not as a heavenly journey in which the narrator accompanies the hero (as is the case in many heavenly journeys in late antiquity). The phrase, “into the sky” (or “heaven”), occurs four times in rapid succession emphasizing that Jesus is taken from the eyes of the disciples and thus from the audience’s “visual” field.
In Acts 1:10, the two messengers ask: “Galileans, why are you standing (there) staring at the sky?” Again, just as the disciples’ words seemed reasonable in their question to Jesus, so also their actions seem most natural. What else should one do when Jesus ascends except stand and look into heaven after him! Idly gazing into heaven, however, is an inappropriate response to Jesus’ ascension. The messengers assure the disciples (and audience) that Jesus will return in just the same way he left.
Despite Christ’s departure, there is no need, however, to speak of an “absentee Christology” in Acts. Though absent as a character from the narrative of Acts after chapter 1 (though see Acts 7:56), the influence of Jesus throughout the rest of the narrative is profound. His name occurs no less than 69 times in Acts. He is at the center of the church’s controversy with the Jews. He guides the church in its missionary efforts; he empowers the disciples to perform miracles. The ascended and exalted Christ, though absent as a character, is nonetheless a constant presence throughout the narrative.
The scene ends with the disciples’ return to Jerusalem (1:12-14). The list of followers is extended in Acts to include women and the family of Jesus, inviting the audience perhaps to revise the definition of disciple and the understanding of who was present at the ascension. To mention “women” is unusual for a succession list. “Mary, the mother of Jesus” stands as a bridge figure between the women who followed Jesus (see Luke 8:2; 23:49, 55; 24:10) and the family of Jesus, which (except for James) receives no further mention in the text. Jesus’ followers return to the upper room where they “devoted themselves together to prayer” (1:14).
The ascension narrative has long puzzled modern interpreters.3 John A.T. Robinson began his theological bombshell, Honest to God (1963), by asserting the impossibility of taking the ascension account literally. Karl Barth (among a host of others) also commented on the difficulty in gleaning a “nucleus of genuine history” from Acts 1 (CD III.2.452). Even a traditional scholar like N.T. Wright has balked at taking the ascension story as a straightforward, historical account: “the language of ‘heaven and earth’, though it could be used to denote sky on the one hand and terra firma on the other, was regularly employed in a sophisticated theological manner, to denote the parallel and interlocking universes inhabited by the creator god on the one hand and humans on the other.”
Like Wright, theologian Oliver O’Donovan has attempted to steer a media via between those who see the ascension as a literal event and those who assign it to a “mental” or purely “spiritual” realm.
The ascension is not only a ‘taking from’, it is a ‘taking up.’ It is a material event which involves the material body of Jesus; it leaves the spatio-temporal (belonging to both space and time or to space/time) space order to enter the immediate presence of the Creator … The transition from the earth to Heaven is more than a reversal of the incarnation, at which God ‘came down’; it is the elevation of man, physical, spatio-temporal man, into an order that is greater than the physical and the spatio-temporal, and which is not his native habitat … All we can say is that the transition has occurred, that there is a beaten path that lies before us, linking our physical existence to an existence in the presence of God which lies beyond its conditions. We cannot see the path — the cloud which hid Jesus on the mountaintop is a veil for that which cannot be comprehended from below — but we know that the path has been taken, and that we are to take it too.
The significance of Ascension is that it underlines the exaltation of Jesus, and a fitting conclusion to his ministry. Also, it authenticates his message about his relationship with the Father and his imminent return at a time appointed by his Father in heaven.
Ascension Day on Thursday and Ascension Sunday’s celebration is confirmation of the faith of the people of God in Jesus as Savior, and that our life in him is embodied in an inseparable bond with God. Every Christian enters this union through baptism in Jesus, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Jesus both reassures and comforts his followers in one of my favorite New Testament texts, “A I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”. What this requires of us is a relentless commitment to pursue the way of life the ascended Christ calls us to live. By this, we become witnesses both in word and action, to the living Christ by pointing others to the way of life he himself lived, and to which the ancient saints sacrificed so much to define and refine through their spiritual writings and autobiography.
As we prepare for the Church’s observance of the coming of the Holy Spirit (celebrated on Sunday, May 23) to what many have come to fondly refer to as the ‘birthday of the Church’, it would do us well to recommit our corporeal life as a parish’s community and even our individual life to laboring with Jesus for the transformation and redemption of our neighborhood and community. The Spirit continues to work through faithful followers of Jesus to make sacred the secular world. It may do us well to reset the trajectory of our vocation to live in solidarity and conformity with the purpose of God for the world and creation. Guess what! This new reality in the online church presence amplified by the pandemic may just do that, as it stretches our imagination and presence beyond our immediate geographical jurisdiction to sphere far beyond our immediate border.
We are now by definition a borderless church so let us access this new frontier in mission and ministry aided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is by definition and missional call the great ‘interrupter’ of ‘stereotypes and sameness’. She/he did so at creation, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and now at ascension in preparation for Pentecost. Pentecost is by far the ‘mother’ of all disruptions and the architect of holy recreations for the good order of bringing life out of chaos and uncertainty.
Material adapted from The Acts of the Apostles. Paideia Commentary Series. Eds. Mikeal C. Parsons and Charles H. Talbert. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic (a division of Baker Publishing Group), 2008. Used by permission.