This weekend, most of the United States will celebrate the Feast of the Ascension. A careful study of the texts from the Christian Scriptures will help us to understand why we are NOT celebrating this as an historical commemoration.
First let us look at the Gospel accounts:
“[But] later, as the eleven were at table, he appeared to them and rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart because they had not believed those who saw him after he had been raised. He said to them, ‘Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents [with their hands], and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.’ So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God.” (Mark 16:14-19)
“While they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. Then he said to them, ‘Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.’ And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed, he asked them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them. He said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. And he said to them, ‘Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And [behold] I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’ Then he led them [out] as far as Bethany, raised his hands, and blessed them. As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven.” (Luke 24:36-51)
These two passages from the Gospels of Mark and Luke tell us rather straightforwardly that the Ascension took place on the same day that Jesus rose from the dead. The Gospel of Matthew is slightly different in that Jesus tells the women to gather the disciples and to go to Galilee. This journey from Jerusalem would have taken a few days. The Gospel of John only mentions the Ascension in that Jesus tells Mary Magdalen not to touch him because he has not yet ascended to the Father. A week later, he allows Thomas to touch him. Can we assume that this means that Jesus has already ascended? Perhaps so.
It becomes really confusing, however, when we compare Luke’s Gospel to the Acts of the Apostles which he also wrote. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read:
“He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While meeting with them, he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for “the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ When they had gathered together they asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He answered them, ‘It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” Acts 1:3-9)
Trying to iron out these discrepancies is futile. It is, therefore, important that we remember that the Church teaches us that the Paschal Mystery includes the Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus and the Coming of the Holy Spirit. In other words, we do not think in terms of four different events. Rather we consider them one single event.
However, to better celebrate the Paschal Mystery, the Church uses the divisions written by St. Luke in Acts of the Apostles so that we can consider each part of the Paschal Mystery and in that consideration come to a better understanding of what the Paschal Mystery means in our own lives.
So, rather than an historical commemoration, the Feast of the Ascension accentuates the fact that for believers, where Jesus has gone, we will follow. This feast day reminds us all that we are not citizens of this world. Rather we are destined for heaven and will one day follow Jesus in returning to the Father. Jesus ascends to heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father where he will eventually present us to the Father as one who has placed their faith in him.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator