In religion, there is sometimes a tension between two conflicting positions. One position would make as much as possible in religion concrete, measurable and rational. The opposite position would make everything in religion a “mystery” and, “Because I believe it,” the adequate response to all questions.
Over the centuries, the Catholic tradition has recognized the dichotomy and refused to opt for one to the exclusion of the other. In Catholic theology, the theological virtue of faith (1 Cor 13:13) by which we are saved (Rom 5:1-2) is truly a mystery of God’s grace that we can never fully understand.
However, Catholic theology has always held the principle of fides querens intellectum, “faith which seeks understanding.” Why we believe (fides quā) is a mystery and not totally explainable. What we believe (fides quæ) is the “stuff” of theology. It is what theologians study and refine. One of the riches of the Catholic tradition is the ability to keep this tension healthy and in balance.
One area where this tension is just below the surface is the Ascension of Christ. Many Christians may have an idea of the Ascension that has little or nothing to do with the New Testament. Once in a homily on Ascension Day, I heard a preacher describe Christ as the “first astronaut.” That may be clever, but it is way off the mark.
The New Testament is the only place we get information on the Ascension of Christ. In what is called “the longer ending” of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus “was taken up (analēmphthē) into heaven” after giving the apostles final instructions (16:19).
The closing chapters of the Gospel of John do not make any mention of Christ’s Ascension as such. However, in John 20:17, Jesus speaks to Mary Magdalene of “going up/ascending” (anabainō, “to go up”) to his Father.
The final paragraph in the Gospel of Matthew (28:16-20) recounts how the apostles met Jesus in Galilee on a mountain he determined. It is clearly a farewell scene; Jesus promises to be with them to the end of time — and with that, the chapter and Gospel close. There is no mention of an ascension.
This brings us to Luke, the author of both the gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, who gives us most of the biblical material we have on the Ascension. Christians are familiar with Luke’s account of the Ascension in Acts 1:6-11, which takes place 40 days (Acts 1:3) after Easter. However, Luke gives another account of the Ascension.
At the end of Luke’s gospel, the disciples return from Emmaus to tell the eleven that Christ is risen and Jesus appears to them all in Jerusalem. After which, Jesus “took them to the outskirts of Bethany…. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried (anaphereto) up into heaven” (24:50-51).
Thus, Luke recounts two Ascensions: one on Easter Sunday evening and one 40 days later.
This tension of two Ascension accounts in Luke-Acts can trouble the modern reader, especially the reader who likes things as concrete as possible. However, if we look at how Luke portrays the risen Christ, an explanation emerges. In comparison with the other gospels, the risen Christ in Luke is surprisingly physical and non-physical at one and the same time.
When Jesus appears to the disciples on Easter Sunday in Luke’s gospel (24:36-43), he stresses that he is not a ghost (pneuma). He has “flesh and bones.” His body shows the marks of the crucifixion. He asks the disciples to touch him. Then, quite extraordinarily, he asks for some food, is given some grilled fish and “eats it in front of them.”
This is a theme that Luke picks up later in Acts 10:40-41: Peter speaks about “certain witnesses” to the risen Christ “chosen by God.” Peter declares “we are those witnesses — we have eaten and drunk with him [the risen Christ] after his resurrection from the dead.”
While the risen Christ is surprisingly concrete and physical for Luke, there is also a very unphysical aspect to him. He can just appear unexpectedly in a room (Lk 24:36). This was enough to terrify the disciples and make them think they were seeing a ghost. This is not the “normal” behavior of one who is “flesh and bones.” Likewise, Jesus was able to walk some distance with the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, converse with them at length and even sit down at table with them without them recognizing him. Their eyes had to “be opened” (Lk 24:31) before they recognized him. This also is not how normal people of “flesh and bones” behave.
The honesty of Luke, while confusing perhaps to the modern person, is enlightening and very important. Luke is faced with the reality of the risen Christ. It is an experience the likes of which he has never experienced and one that he simply does not have the language to describe — no human does. On the one hand, the risen Christ is radically different — unrecognizable — appearing and disappearing at will. Nevertheless, the risen Christ is the same Jesus of Nazareth they had known, heard, traveled, eaten and drunk with. How can one adequately express this in human language? The answer is one cannot. And so, Luke will balance the “contradictions,” because the “contradictions” bring one closer to the reality than everyday “factual, logical” language ever could.
The modern believer may have an excessively concrete conception of the Ascension. However, in a world of the Hubble Space Telescope and interplanetary travel, an overly concrete ascension raises more questions than it answers: How far up? How long was the journey? What and where was the goal or the journey?
Luke shows that our human language is inadequate to express the reality. The mystery of the Ascension is not spatial. It is rather the exaltation of the risen Jesus as Christ and Lord at the right hand of the Father.
Luke’s attempt at explaining it may be partial — as finite humans, that is the best we can do. However, he masterfully avoids the extremes of the overly concrete and the overly spiritual to give us insight into the final exaltation of Christ.
A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.