Of all the events our liturgies celebrate throughout the year, this one—the Ascension of Our Lord—is certainly the most difficult to interpret and therefore the most difficult to understand. What, on the surface, appears to be simply an eyewitness account of an amazing occurrence at the conclusion of Jesus’s resurrection appearances, loses its clarity as soon as we eliminate from the picture the divine elevator to heaven that Luke describes in the narration of this event from his Acts of the Apostles. In fact, almost nothing from Luke’s narrative can claim historical accuracy—not the timing, not the location, and certainly not the details of the supposed eyewitness accounts.
Let’s discuss the origins of some of the details in Luke’s account. First, the timing. In the Scriptures, forty should never be considered to be an accurate number. Wherever it appears, it always signifies the fullness of time. For example, the forty days and forty nights of rain in Noah’s day, or Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness, or Jesus’s forty days’ fast in the desert. We should consider the forty days since Jesus’s resurrection in the same light. It’s the time of fulfillment of his earthly ministry.
Next, let’s consider the location: the Mount of Olives. It’s not identified by name in any of the ascension narratives, however, the location of the mountain of the ascension to the east of Jerusalem makes it clear that the Mount of Olives is the intended locale. It was understood to be the place where God would reveal his glory. The prophet Ezekiel [11:22-23] predicted that Israel would be restored when “…the cherubim lifted their wings…with the glory of the God of Israel above them. The glory of the Lord rose up from the middle of the city and came to rest on the mountain east of the city” that is, the Mount of Olives. Likewise, the prophet Zechariah [14:4] foresaw the coming of the day of the Lord. “On that day, God’s feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is opposite Jerusalem to the east.” Thus, the Mount of Olives was considered a place of divine revelation.
Finally, let’s consider the event itself. The description hearkens back to the prophet Daniel [7:13-14] where it is written, “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” The ascension as Luke describes it identified Jesus as the one foretold by Daniel, in that he ascends in an identical manner to the way the prophet describes the coming of the “one like a son of man.” The ascension is the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven—only in reverse.
None of this—the timing, the location, or the event itself—is to be taken literally. What Luke is describing in the Acts of the Apostles—indeed, what all the gospel writers are describing—is the exaltation and glorification of the risen Christ and the transference of that glory to Christ’s body, the Church.
The ascension is the completion of the Resurrection. In the theology of John, the Evangelist, the eternal Word humbled himself to become one of us and so gave us the power to become one with the Father. His humiliation becomes our exaltation. Saint Paul expresses this perfectly in his letter to the Philippians [2:6-11] when he quotes a much older Christian hymn praising Christ Jesus “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” We acknowledge it: Jesus Christ is Lord…Jesus Christ is Yahweh. The ascension, then, is the completion and fulfillment of the Incarnation.
To understand the ascension, all we really need to do is to recall that heaven is not a place. When we say that Christ “ascended into heaven,” he didn’t go anywhere. He fulfilled his mission to bring heaven—that is, the reign of God—to earth. As he is reunited with the Father, so we, too, are reunited with the Father in and through him. The ascension is as much about us, the Church, Christ’s body, being at one with the Father as it is about Jesus.
Ordinarily, we focus our attention on the day’s gospel reading to appreciate the content and focus of our liturgy. Today, the description of Christ’s ascension in the gospel reading and even its treatment in the Acts of the Apostles tell us less about our celebration than the passage from Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in our second reading. Now that we have a better idea of what the ascension means—and what it doesn’t mean—let me re-read this passage to you. It’s Paul’s prayer that you may come to an understanding and appreciation of Christ’s ascension and what it means for you.
“Brothers and sisters:
May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,
give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation
resulting in knowledge of him.
May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,
that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call,
what are the riches of glory
in his inheritance among the holy ones,
and what is the surpassing greatness of his power
for us who believe,
in accord with the exercise of his great might,
which he worked in Christ,
raising him from the dead
and seating him at his right hand in the heavens,
far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion,
and every name that is named
not only in this age but also in the one to come.
And he put all things beneath his feet
and gave him as head over all things to the church,
which is his body,
the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.”
This is the word of the Lord.