Luke’s Ascension Accounts

The readings for Thursday, May 5, 2016, Ascension of the Lord, Cycle C, are Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23; and Luke 24:46-53.

The Gospel for the Feast of the Ascension begins with the only post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples. Before our Gospel reading begins, Jesus first had to deal with the fright of his disciples at seeing him after their experience of his death. He proved that he was real by eating a piece of broiled fish in their presence. Then follows a monologue as Jesus addresses his disciples. First he reminds them of “my words which I spoke to you while I was still with you,” that the three parts of the Hebrew Scriptures — the Torah, the Prophets, the Writings (here called the Psalms) — all witnessed to the events that had happened to him, his suffering, death, and resurrection. According to Luke’s theology, these events had to occur because they were written in the Scriptures, that is, in the Old Testament. God’s plan could not fail.

Not only were his suffering, death, and resurrection thus planned, but God’s plan in the Old Testament Scriptures extended even to the disciples’ mission, “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Then their commissioning, “You are witnesses of these things.” They were not to begin immediately, but were instructed to wait until “I send the promise of my Father upon you. You must remain in the city (Jerusalem) until you are clothed with power from on high.”

Such was their quick theology course from their once dead but now resurrected teacher, his final instruction to them. Next he leads them out to the town of Bethany, 1.5 miles from Jerusalem on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. The disciples were well-acquainted with Bethany, since that is where Jesus & Co. lodged when they were in Jerusalem for Passover observance.

After arrival at Bethany Jesus blessed the disciples, and “while he blessed them, he parted from them and was taken up to heaven.” Thus Luke ends his “orderly account” of Jesus’ last moments on earth. Was it all really that simple and quick — just one post- resurrection encounter? So it would seem, if we did not have other Gospels with very different post resurrection narratives. We have a very different post-resurrection and ascension narrative from Luke himself, the Acts of Apostles. This second narrative of Luke is the first reading for the Feast of the Ascension. And what a difference!

In this narrative of post-resurrection activity, Jesus keeps appearing to his disciples throughout forty days, “and speaking of the kingdom of God.” Luke is never clear in his Gospel or in Acts just what he means by “kingdom of God.” There was a final gathering of Jesus with his disciples. They had not understood what Jesus meant by “the kingdom.” The dense quality of their understanding was clear, as they asked, “Lord will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” They were still expecting a political/geographical kingdom. When will they ever learn?

This was no time for another theology course, so Jesus more or less told them that was none of their business, but the business of his Father. Again he reminds them of the coming upon them of the Holy Spirit and their mission as his witnesses to the ends of the earth. As they were absorbing this answer, “He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Keeping in mind the differences in Luke’s two narratives — short in the Gospel, long in Acts -— was Luke merely telescoping events in his Gospel, and elaborating in Acts? Or is it better to recognize that Luke’s concern is not a biographical, historical description, but catechetical instruction? Taking into consideration the narratives in the other Gospels and in Paul’s Letters, we choose catechetical.

In other words, the ascension of Jesus can be understood in various ways. It is important to understand that “ascension” does not have to mean movement from place to place, from one locality to another — from heaven to earth. Earth is indeed a “place,” but is heaven a place or locality? St. John Paul II taught that heaven is not to be thought of as a place as we understand locality on earth. It is a state of being. Benedict XVI gave a beautiful clarification of John Paul’s teaching, when he said, “Heaven is simply God.” So what does the Ascension of Jesus mean? Ascension is a public proclamation of the glory which the Son of God always had, but now enjoys also in his human nature. His ascension is therefore also our ascension.