The Ascension Day


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Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe… Christ to have ascended…
For the Epistle
Acts 1:1-11
Mark 16:14-20

Theology is the search for the meaning, expressed metaphorically, of sacred mysteries. This basic search for meaning frequently descends from that sublime enterprise into attempts to describe mechanics which lead to such questions as: was there a virgin birth; was the Crucifixion an act of penal substitution; what form did Jesus’ physical presence take after the Resurrection; and, in the context of today’s Feast, did Jesus literally rise from the earth, through the clouds to Heaven?

Without Luke’s two accounts, in today’s Reading from Acts and 24:50-52 of his Gospel, there would be less of a concern with mechanics and more with meaning. All the Evangelists agree that Jesus took on some kind of physical form for brief periods after the Resurrection and then returned to the Father; but Luke’s graphical descriptions make us face up squarely to a questioning of events which must deeply influence our theology. If, for example, Jesus simply appeared as a wraith after his Crucifixion it would have a profound effect upon our understanding of life after death and salvation. Similarly, the return to the Father, graphically portrayed, makes us think differently about our own return. The actual event of the Ascension in Luke is consistent with its post Resurrection predecessors.

This very physicality of Jesus during the period between his Resurrection and Ascension naturally revolves around three central themes: first, Jesus has conquered death and turned the tragedy of the Crucifixion into a triumph; Secondly, the Apostles need to be aware of their responsibilities which will be further reinforced by the coming of The Spirit; and, thirdly, having put all things in order, Jesus will return to The Father. As already noted, only Luke describes this return graphically, using it as a link between his Gospel and Acts, and only he locates the farewell on the Mount of Olives, making it yet another pivotal event associated with Jerusalem. Matthew locates the appearances of Jesus in Galilee but leaves it at that; Mark completes his narrative at the tomb (today’s Gospel was a later addition but this was not known in the 16th Century); and John is most emphatic about the necessity of Jesus returning to The Father (Chapters 13-17) but does not feel the necessity of going further, even though he locates the post Resurrection appearances of Jesus both in Jerusalem and Galilee (some scholars believe that Chapter 22 was a later addition to John).

Although we are anticipating somewhat, the rapid and profound development of Trinitarian theology was one of the first fruits of the Holy Spirit. Although it was necessarily most developed in John as the last of the Evangelists, all four Gospels show evidence of the deep commitment—which runs so counter to Judaism—that the Christian approach to God (The Father) is always through The Son and in the power of the Spirit; and that that Trinitarian economy could not have been established without the return of Jesus to The Father. Yet he did not return as he had come: Jesus was born of the Father before time but he was also born of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit as an incarnate being. What, then, we are being told in the Gospels in general and Luke in particular is that, having been enfleshed, Jesus remains enfleshed in anticipation of our enfleshment at the end of time. The Ascension is therefore pivotal in the relationship between the Creator and the created because it is, literally, the last word on the eternity of the incarnation; the bridge between the divine and the human is to remain intact, serviced, if you like, by the Holy Spirit. Some of the terminology in the Nicene Creed is confusing to the contemporary intellectual climate not just because of a quite understandable general ignorance of 4th Century Greek philosophy and its associated theological disputes but also because such terms as “Person”, “Consubstantial” and “Proceed” have so completely changed their meanings in the last 1600 years that in some ways they are not just obscure but actually obscure what the Creed is trying to say.

The important idea in the context of the Ascension is that Christianity is, above everything else, relational (although this and its Sacramentality are both absent from the Creeds): we were created voluntarily to form a loving relationship with the Creator; Jesus was created to give physical reality to that relationship to see it, so to speak, from our side of the fence; and The Spirit exists to maintain that relationship. Without the relationship there would be no need of the Son nor the Spirit, thee would just be a God making more or less comprehensible pronouncements about the duties of creatures.

There is, apart from the theological implications, a very human aspect to the Ascension which is typically Lucan and that is the recognition of the human need for closure. For Matthew, Mark and John there is no real problem but as Luke is taking the story on through Acts he has to find a narrative approach that does not leap straight from appearances to the Disciples to the coming of the Holy Spirit. Luke’s solution is to see the Ascension as both an end and a beginning.

In Luke’s Gospel account he describes the Disciples as being joyful after the Ascension. This is a somewhat counter intuitive notion unless, for once in their lives, they clearly understood the promise Jesus had made about the sending of The Spirit. At least they did not have long to wait for all to be made clear.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. What extra dimensions do Luke’s two accounts of the Ascension give to the story of Jesus?
  2. How do the Ascension accounts contribute to Trinitarian theology?
  3. Why might the Disciples have been happy after the Ascension (Luke 1850-52)?
  4. Discuss contemporary view of John 22 and Mark 16.9-20
  5. Write a Creed for today.

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