Musings on the Ascension

Bernard Robinson discusses a few different ways of viewing the Feast of the Ascension by way of aids to meditating, praying and preaching.

The Ascension as triumphal exit

Luke has two accounts of the Ascension, in Luke 24.50–52 and Acts 1.9–11. In the Roman Rite, the Gospel account is used liturgically only in Year C (for both the Vigil and the Daytime Mass), whereas the Acts account is used in all years for both Masses.

In the Gospel, the Ascension happens at Bethany, at the foot of Olivet, on Easter Sunday. (This dating is also perhaps implied in John 20.17; in the ‘Longer Ending of Mark’ [Mk. 16.19]; and also in two apocryphal texts, the Epistle of Barnabas and the Gospel of Peter.) The Ascension here marks the triumphal end to Jesus’ mission on earth. The account ends with the disciples ‘continually in the Temple, blessing God’ (Lk 24.53). Luke’s Gospel, which begins with Zechariah ministering in the Temple (1.5–23), thus also ends with the mention of the Temple, thereby achieving a sense of closure. The mention of Bethany recalls the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem at 19.28–40. We are also reminded of chapter 9: at the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus of his exodos which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem (Lk 9.31), and shortly afterwards Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem for his ‘taking up’ (analēmpsis, 9.51); this recalls the taking up of Elijah (2 Kgs. 2.11, LXX anelēmphē, he was taken up). There was also a tradition that after his death Moses (or his soul) was taken up to heaven. Both Moses and Elijah passed on their work to disciples (Joshua and Elisha respectively); like them, Jesus will later send his Spirit to empower his disciples. He tells them to wait in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on high (Lk 24.49); a reference perhaps to the mantle which Elisha took over from Elijah (2 Kgs. 2.14). For the moment, however, Luke’s Gospel story has run its course. Jesus raises his hands and blesses his disciples. A farewell gesture? Yes, but also perhaps a reference to Ecclesiasticus 50.20–24, where, as the climax to that book, Simon Maccabaeus raises his hands and bestows a priestly blessing on the people. There is also, surely, a reference to the long blessing that Moses bestows on the Israelites before leaving them, Deuteronomy 33. Jesus then withdraws from them and is carried up to heaven, while the disciples remain for the time being in the Temple, where the Gospel story had begun. Luke’s first volume moves from the Jerusalem Temple back to it, with a valedictory blessing. The Ascension here is, as has been said, is a sort of triumphal exit.

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