Ascension of Jesus
In Christian art, the ascending Jesus is often shown blessing an earthly group below him, signifying the entire Church. The Feast of the Ascension is celebrated on the 40th day of Easter, always a Thursday; the Orthodox tradition has a different calendar up to a month later than in the Western tradition, and while the Anglican communion continues to observe the feast, most Protestant churches have abandoned the observance.
Luke-Acts, a single work from the same anonymous author, provides the only narrative account of the ascension. Luke 24 tells how Jesus leads the eleven disciples to Bethany, a village on the Mount of Olives not far from Jerusalem, where he instructs them to remain in Jerusalem until the coming of the Holy Spirit and blesses them. “And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” Acts 1 describes a meal at which Jesus commands the disciples to await the coming of the Holy Spirit, a cloud takes him upward from sight, and two men in white appear to tell them (the disciples) that he will return “in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Luke and Acts appear to describe the same event, but present quite different chronologies, Luke placing it on the same day as the resurrection and Acts forty days afterwards; various proposals have been put forward to resolve the contradiction, but the question remains open.
The Gospel of John has three references to ascension in Jesus’ own words: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the son of man” (John 3:13); “What if you (the disciples) were to see the son of man ascending where he was before?” (John 6:62); and to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection, “Do not hold me, for I not yet ascended to my father…” (John 20:17). In the first and second Jesus is claiming to be the apocalyptic “one like a son of man” of Daniel 7; the last has mystified commentators – why should Mary be prohibited from touching the risen but not yet ascended Christ, while Thomas is later invited to do so?
Various epistles (Romans 8:34, Ephesians 1:19-20, Colossians 3:1, Philippians 2:9-11, 1 Timothy 3:16, and 1 Peter 3:21-22) also refer to an ascension, seeming, like Luke-Acts and John, to equate it with the post-resurrection “exaltation” of Jesus to the right hand of God. There is a broad consensus among scholars that the brief ascension account in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:19) is a later addition to the original version of that gospel.
Theologian James Dunn describes the ascension as at best a puzzle and at worst an embarrassment for an age which no longer conceives of a physical heaven located above the Earth. The cosmology of the author of Luke-Acts was quite different: his age believed in a three-part cosmos with the heavens above, a flat earth centered on Jerusalem in the middle, and the underworld below. Heaven was separated from the earth by the firmament, the visible sky, a solid inverted bowl where God’s palace sat on pillars in the celestial sea. Humans looking up from earth saw the floor of heaven, made of clear blue lapis-lazuli (Exodus 24:9-10), as was God’s throne (Ezekiel 1:26).
Ascension stories were fairly common around the time of Jesus and the gospel-authors, signifying the deification of a noteworthy person (usually a Roman Emperor), and in Judaism as an indication of divine approval. Another function of heavenly ascent was as a mode of divine revelation reflected in Greco-Roman, early Jewish, and early Christian literary sources, in which particular individuals with prophetic or revelatory gifts are thought to have experienced a heavenly journey during which they learned cosmic and divine secrets. Figures familiar to Jews would have included Enoch (from the Book of Genesis and a popular non-Biblical work called 1 Enoch); the 5th-century sage Ezra; Baruch the companion of the prophet Jeremiah (from a work called 2 Baruch, in which Baruch is promised he will ascend to heaven after 40 days); Levi the ancestor of priests; the Teacher of Righteousness from the Qumran community; the prophet Elijah (from 2 Kings); Moses, who was deified on entering heaven; and the children of Job, who according to the Testament of Job ascended heaven following their resurrection from the dead. Non-Jewish readers would have been familiar with the case of the emperor Augustus, whose ascent was witnessed by Senators; Romulus the founder of Rome, who, like Jesus, was taken to heaven in a cloud; the Greek hero Heracles (Hercules); and others.
The common thread linking all the New Testament ascension references, reflected in the major Christian creeds and confessional statements, is the exaltation of Jesus, meaning that through his ascension Jesus took his seat at the right hand of God in Heaven: “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.” (Apostles’ Creed) It implies the human Jesus being taken into Heaven and marks the beginning of Christ’s heavenly rule, and its hold on the Christian imagination is evidenced by its importance in Christian art through the centuries.
Liturgy: Feast of the Ascension
The Feast of the Ascension is one of the ecumenical (i.e., universally celebrated) feasts of the Christian liturgical year, along with the Passion, Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas. Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on the sixth Thursday after Easter Sunday, the fortieth day from Easter day, although some Roman Catholic provinces have moved the observance to the following Sunday to facilitate the obligation to attend Mass. Saint Jerome held that it was of Apostolic origin, but in fact the ascension was originally part of Pentecost (the coming of the Holy Spirit), and developed as a separate celebration only slowly from the late 4th century onward. In the Catholic tradition it begins with a three-day “rogation” to ask for God’s mercy, and the feast itself includes a procession of torches and banners symbolising Christ’s journey to the Mount of Olives and entry into heaven, the extinguishing of the Paschal candle, and an all-night vigil; white is the liturgical colour. The orthodox tradition has a slightly different calendar up to a month later than in the Western tradition; the Anglican communion continues to observe the feast, but most Protestant churches have abandoned the traditional Christian calendar of feasts.
Olivet and the Chapel of the Ascension
Around the year 390 a wealthy Roman woman named Poimenia financed construction of the original church called “Eleona Basilica” (elaion in Greek means “olive garden”, from elaia “olive tree,” and has an oft-mentioned similarity to eleos meaning “mercy”). This church was destroyed by Sassanid Persians in 614. It was subsequently rebuilt, destroyed, and rebuilt again by the Crusaders. This final church was later destroyed by Muslims, leaving only a 12×12 meter octagonal structure (called a martyrium—”memorial”—or “Edicule”) that remains to this day. The site was ultimately acquired by two emissaries of Saladin in the year 1198 and has remained in the possession of the Islamic Waqf of Jerusalem ever since. The Russian Orthodox Church also maintains a convent of the ascension on the top of the Mount of Olives.
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