The Feast of the Ascension

Published on 20 May 2020
Light over the hills
Harry Elias SJ reflects on the Feast of the Ascension

St Luke paints quite a dramatic picture of the Ascension of Christ. At the end of his gospel, the risen Christ (after having had a meal with his disciples) tells them to stay in Jerusalem until they have been ‘clothed with power from on high’. Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven’ (Luke 24:49-51). In Acts, Luke adds the detail ‘he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight’ (Acts 1:9).  

There is no such description of Christ’s departure in the other gospels, though one can read hints of a final departure in them. In Mark, the women who had come to the tomb were told that Jesus of Nazareth has been raised and that ‘he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him just as he told you’ (Mark 16:7). In Matthew, the final scene with the disciples was in Galilee, and on the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. There he commissions them to teach and baptize, ‘and remember, I am with you always to the end of the ages (Matthew 28:!9-20). And in John’s gospel, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene weeping outside the tomb and says to her not to hold on to him, because he had not yet ascended to the Father. 

Although the Ascension is not explicitly mentioned except in Luke's Gospel  and the Acts of the Apostles, its basic function is there in all the other gospels, which is the handover of Jesus’ worldwide mission to the disciples he has called: namely his church. In Mark this handover can only be inferred. The message of the angel to the women at the tomb to be given to Peter and the disciples was that 'he is going ahead of you to Galilee...(16:7). Galilee is the Galilee of the Gentiles, of the nations (Isaiah 9:1). In Matthew, Jesus hands over his authority to the disciples 'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them.......and teaching them everything that I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19-20). This commission reflects the gospel's emphasis on Jesus' teaching. Luke is explicit: Jesus opens the disciples’ minds to understand the scriptures and says to them ‘... repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’. The sending out of the Twelve (Luke 9:1-6) and then of the seventy (Luke 10:1-16) in Jesus’ lifetime functioned as precursors of his own Ascension, his final handover. John, in his gospel, even shows Jesus handing over the Spirit after his resurrection and before his ascending. On the evening of his resurrection Jesus appeared to the disciples through locked doors and said to them ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me so I send you’. He then breathed on them to receive the Holy Spirit and the authority to forgive and retain sins’ (John 20:21-23). 

The differences in location of the resurrection and implicitly the ascension in the gospels does cause confusion. Bearing in mind that they were written primarily for disciples in different communities, it may be that the location was not seen as important as what it symbolised. The Marcan church, which may have been situated around or in Galilee, is being reminded that it is being guided by Jesus to bring his message to the nations in the world. Galilee was also the region where Jesus worked his miracles and exorcisms, so the Marcan church may have been meeting with spectacular success in drawing gentiles into discipleship. The longer ending of Mark (16:9-20), appended to the gospel at a later date, contains elements of the Lucan tradition while drawing attention to the miracles the church was enabled to perform. Matthew seems to be 'editing' Mark. With Jesus meeting the women hurrying from the tomb and repeating the message just given to them by the angels, he attempts to reconcile the tradition of Jesus first appearing in Jerusalem (Luke/Acts and John) with Mark’s, and possibly his own, of the first appearance in Galilee. He makes Jesus’ final appearance to be on the mountain in Galilee his disciples and his command to the disciples to make disciples of all nations with the emphasis on teaching them to obey all they were commanded is a reflection of Matthew’s gospel and the church he was addressing, one that was possibly composed of Jewish converts who were keen on showing how Jesus and his teaching were not opposed to the Mosaic law and went even further (eg Matthew 5:17). The final scene on the mountain could be hinting at the handing over of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.  

For Luke, Jerusalem was of prime importance because it was the site of the Temple. For Jesus, it was ‘my Father’s house’. His gospel opens and closes in the Temple. The Acts of the Apostles depict the Lucan church operating first, and growing amazingly fast, in the Jerusalem area but then scattering as far as the Mediterranean shore owing to persecutions. For that earlier mission, it was important that Jesus as the Messiah was foretold to have to suffer and die. So when Jesus appears to the two on the way to Emmaus and later to his disciples ‘he opened their minds to understand the scriptures: ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory (Luke 24:26). It is not clear what scriptures were meant, but most likely they pointed back to the figure in Isaiah 52-53 usually known as the suffering servant.  

John’s gospel shows the Church for which he was spokesman in bitter conflict with the synagogue, perhaps at a time when they being expelled and so losing their exemption from worshipping the emperor. Jesus appears first in Jerusalem (20:19) and then by the sea of Tiberias, otherwise known as the sea of Galilee (21:1), but no special significance seems to be placed on Jerusalem – rather it was on Jesus appearing through locked doors and bringing peace. To the woman by the well in Samaria, Jesus said ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem....but the hour is coming and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth’ (John 4:21, 23) The mention of the miraculous catch of fish by the sea of Galilee would be a flashback to the pre-resurrection miracle in Luke (5:1-11). .  

In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul quotes from an early Christian saying or hymn ‘He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things’ (4:10) with the church as Christ's body over which he has been made the head becoming the fullness of him who fills all in all’ (1:23). Through his ascension, Christ is able to come to us in the fullness of the Spirit so that we can receive the gifts we need for the building up the body of Christ. The Ascension not only marks the handover to us, but it is first of all the handover to the Father. John’s gospel contains the same dynamic ‘if I (Jesus) do not go away the Advocate (the Holy Spirit) will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you (16:7).  

I have tried to show that the Ascension was important for its function, its function as a handover,  a drawing an end to the time when the bridegroom is with them and the disciples would have to fast (Mark 2:20); and whereas before they were sent without purse, bag or sandals, they would have to take these and even a sword for a cloak (Luke 22:35-36). Nevertheless, they will be equipped with the insights and strength they need for the struggle. So I am able to see my day beginning with myself  in the process of ascending to the Father, at the place I happen to be at the time, Jerusalem or Galilee or wherever, thankful to Jesus coming to me in the Holy Spirit now with the fulness of his gifts of power and wisdom I need for the day. The rest of the day then becomes a handing over with Jesus in the Holy Spirit to others from the growing fulness of the gifts I receive so that I can contribute in my small way to the growing fulness of the church in truth and love, in whatever community I am situated. 

Our handing over to others continues all the more directly when our 'ascension' constitutes our leaving this creation with Christ better in the Spirit to enable others to continue the growth of the new.

Harry Elias SJ