The Ascension of the Lord
On May 25, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. This holy day of obligation commemorates the transition of Jesus’ humanity into divine glory—of the risen Jesus into the exalted Christ who from that time forward would be seated at the right hand of the Father.
Christian tradition holds that the Ascension occurred forty days after the Resurrection. On the thirty-ninth day, the eleven remaining apostles had returned to Jerusalem from Galilee, where they had shared a meal with the post-Resurrection Jesus on the shore of Lake Tiberias, and had gathered together 500 followers for his appearance at Et Tabgha.
We know that Jesus appeared to the disciples in Jerusalem one final time upon their return from Galilee. Some argue there were two separate appearances by Jesus—one on the thirty-ninth day, when he gave his final teachings to the apostles, and one on the fortieth day, when he led them to the Mount of Olives. Is it possible that Jesus appeared to the disciples in the upper room on one occasion and then once again at the time of the Ascension? Yes, it is possible; however, security argues against it happening.
Jesus had been very concerned with the safety of his disciples. The Last Supper had been shrouded in secrecy to thwart any attempt by temple authorities to disrupt the event. After his death, the risen Jesus had instructed the disciples to go to Galilee; in Jerusalem, his appearance to a large crowd to dispel conspiracy theories would have put the apostles in great danger.
Similarly, Jesus would have again wanted to minimize any risk to his followers before his ascension. Hence, the most likely scenario was this: The apostles returned to Jerusalem on the thirty-ninth day. On the fortieth day, Jesus appeared to them in the upper room—where the Last Supper and two post-Resurrection appearances to the apostles had occurred—delivered his final messages, and then led the apostles through the streets of Jerusalem, during daylight hours, to the Mount of Olives where the Ascension occurred.
Jesus’ Final Teachings
The descriptions of Jesus’ teachings in his post-Resurrection appearances are skimpy. We do know that during those forty days he spoke of the kingdom of God to the apostles and interpreted the scriptures related to the things concerning himself. Luke 24 tells us that “he opened their mind to understand the scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead….’”
What would Jesus have spent this time on scripture? Remember, up until the Resurrection, none of the apostles had themselves interpreted scripture, as evidenced when Peter remonstrated with Jesus when he foretold his death. Even John the Baptist did not understand scripture as prophesying a Messiah other than one who would restore the kingdom, at least until Jesus referred him to other passages. Throughout the gospel narrative, only a few people had correctly interpreted the scriptures: Simeon, with his prophecy of the sword piercing Mary’s soul, and at least two of the Magi. Aside from Simeon and the Magi, only Jesus understood the scriptures correctly, sharing his learning with Mary. Why Jesus would have returned to his teaching of the scriptures at this time is understandable when we remember that even after being taught the proper interpretation by the resurrected Jesus, some apostles still asked when he would act like the real Messiah, the man on a white horse.
In addition to the sharing of the scriptures, we know of three themes that were repeated in those final days leading up to the Ascension. Two are found in this passage: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’”
Jesus directed the apostles to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth and, upon converting persons, baptize them. Baptism is the outward and visible sign of conversion. One who hears the gospel and is unwilling to make a public confession of his faith, ordinarily is condemned to live outside the faith. In this passage is also the assurance that Jesus would accompany the apostles and their converts in order to protect them, a theme reiterated in Mark: “(T)hey will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.” Remember, Paul unintentionally picked up a viper in a bundle of sticks but was not harmed. Some people have practiced snake-handling, intentionally subjecting themselves to possible snakebite as a proof of their faith. But the scripture says that God will protect the believer from mishap, not from intentionally testing God. Jesus condemned an act designed to put God to the test, when he himself had refused to test God by leaping from the pinnacle of the temple.
The final theme that we can gather from Jesus’ post-Resurrection teachings is that he directed the disciples to stay in Jerusalem to await some great event: What was this great event? We know it as Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and they were “clothed with power from on high.”
Forty days after the Resurrection, a Thursday, Jesus walked through the streets of Jerusalem (in one of his non-recognizable forms), went out the city gate and across Brook Kidron, and then up the Mount of Olives—a total distance of less than a mile.
Who was with him? When one considers the religious fervor and emotion which Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances inspired, it is impossible to envision the eleven apostles excluding the other disciples from their gatherings and, thereby, from Jesus’ appearances to the group. It seems reasonable that numerous disciples, such as the Blessed Virgin Mary; Cleophas; Mary Magdalene; Mary, the wife of Cleophas; and others who figure in the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection were undoubtedly present in the upper room.
However, when considering who accompanied him to the Mount of Olives, we must keep in mind two points: security and authority. As previously mentioned, Jesus had a deep concern for the safety of the apostles. When he led his group through Jerusalem, it would have undoubtedly been limited in size for security reasons. Additionally, by calling only the eleven apostles to witness his ascension, Jesus would have emphasized their uniqueness and their authority. They had been chosen by him, hand-picked to be fishers of men; they would form the universal church, bringing the gospel to all nations of the earth.
Therefore, it seems reasonable that only the apostles went with Jesus to the Mount of Olives. When they arrived, Jesus led them off the road into an open area. He then blessed them and, doing so, began to ascend. Note that unlike Elijah, who was taken up by a chariot in a whirlwind, Jesus ascended of his own volition at a time and place of his own selection. He was not taken up into heaven by intervention of the Father, as was Elijah.
The best description of the Ascension occurs in Acts: “He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” He ascended in their sight until he was obscured by a cloud. The ascent probably was not into a high cloud formation, so that Jesus would have become a tiny figure in their sight; rather, it was probably into a low cloud formation so that Jesus was recognizable to them until their vision was blocked by the cloud.
As the apostles were gazing into heaven, two men in white robes stood by them, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven.” The two men, of course, were angels, who disappeared after delivering the comfortable words.