What is Christ’s Ascension?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Sunday 05, May 2013 | Category:   Doctrines & Beliefs,Liturgy,Scripture
For most of my life I thought the Ascension was a feast basically designed to resolve a mystery: After Easter, where did Jesus go? Answer: back to his Father. Most scripture scholars are quick to point out that the stories of the Ascension do not match up in many details, which suggests they aren’t intended to give us a visual on what historically occurred the day Jesus left town.

Luke says Jesus was carried off to heaven from Bethany on the same day as the Resurrection. The account in the Acts of the Apostles reports this event 40 days later and from the Mount of Olives. Mark says it happened later in the day on Easter—but apparently from indoors, while Jesus was seated at the table with his disciples. Houston, we have a problem.

Or maybe not. Early church father Saint John Chrysostom insisted the event was intended to convey the final exaltation of Christ: After the humiliation of the Cross he winds up at the right hand of his Father. Saint Augustine said the Ascension is really about the glorification of us all: Where Jesus went, we, too, might go.

It’s possible to talk about ascension in pre-Christian terms. Prefigurings of this event in the Old Testament include the mysterious departure of Enoch in Genesis who “walked with God, and he was no longer here, for God took him.” This startling sentence is amplified in later extra-biblical books about Enoch. How can you let a story line like that go? The prophet Elijah likewise enjoyed a grand exit on a fiery chariot in 2 Kings: “Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind, and Elisha saw it happen.”

It should be added that the Catholic Church teaches that Mary, mother of Jesus, was also assumed into heaven, though the Bible doesn’t include the story. Theologians like to distinguish between “passive” assumptions like these and the active principle of an ascension, in which one chooses to depart, as Jesus did.

Another element that makes the Ascension unique is that while Jesus is technically “gone” he’s not absent but rather present in a new way. His bodily Ascension makes it possible for the church now to become the viable Body of Christ on earth. Jesus is present not only in the church but also in his Spirit and in the Eucharist. If the clouds and angels in the Ascension stories have been called apocalyptic stage props, the idea that Jesus is lifting up the church to where he is, is not.

Scripture
Genesis 5:21-24; 2 Kings 2:1-18; 1 Maccabees 2:58; Sirach 49:14; Mark 16:14-20; Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; Hebrews 11:5

Online
Why do Catholics believe in the Assumption of Mary? 

Books
Ascension Now: Implications of Christ’s Ascension for Today’s Church by Peter Atkins (Liturgical Press, 2001)
The Ladder: Parable-Stories of Ascension and Descension by Edward Hays (Ave Maria, 1999)

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