In photography there is something called depth of focus; there is shallow and deep depth of focus. When photographing a flower, an insect or something small, photographers often prefer a shallow depth of focus. This has the effect of making the object clear and sharply in focus while everything else is out of focus — either blurry or indistinguishable. This can be quite effective for catching the viewer’s eye and focusing attention.
Liturgical feasts function as a type of depth of focus. A given action, miracle, event is thrown sharply into focus and other things fade into the background. This is definitely the case with the Feast of the Ascension. Occurring only once a year, the reading is taken from the Acts of the Apostles (1:9-11) and recounts Jesus being “lifted up and taken by a cloud.” The author of Acts, St. Luke, sets the ascension 40 days (1:3) after Easter at the Mount of Olives. The “depth of focus” is so tight that everything else simply disappears. The account of the Ascension in Acts becomes for many Christians the only account of the Ascension. In point of fact, the Ascension of Jesus is a rather complex and theologically significant event in the New Testament.
This becomes immediately evident when we look at the Gospels. Matthew (cf. 28) has the eleven disciples return to Galilee before having encountered the risen Christ. Jesus meets them on an appointed mountain, gives them the “great commission” to teach and baptize, promises to be with them and the Gospel closes — no account of an ascension.
In the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel (16:19) Jesus “was taken up into heaven and seated at the right hand of God.”
More interestingly, Luke in the Acts of the Apostles has a different ascension story in his Gospel. Easter Sunday (Luke 24) is a very full day in Luke’s Gospel. The women find the tomb empty; two disciples encounter Jesus on the way to Emmaus and immediately return to tell the disciples in Jerusalem; while the two are telling their story (24:36) Jesus appears to all of them. He instructs them (24:36-50) and says he will send the “promise” (epaggelian) of the Father. “Then he led them out as far as Bethany and…was carried up into heaven” (24:51). Thus, Luke himself has two different account of the Ascension!
The time between Easter Sunday and Ascension Thursday in the New Testament is much more complicated than the readings would give us to believe. One of the earliest accounts can be found in 1 Cor. 15:3-8: Christ died, was buried, was raised on the third day, appeared to Cephas and the Twelve, “then he appeared to more than 500 brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” This, of course, raises all kinds of interesting and important questions — not only for us, but for also for both friends and foes of the early Christians: who were these 500, where are they and, most importantly, where is Jesus? We can see an attempt to respond to this in Acts 10:40-41 “…God raised him [Jesus] up on the third day and allowed him to be seen not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses (emphasis mine)….” This seems to be a way of limiting the mass appearance hinted in 1 Corinthians.
Nonetheless, the practical question remained: if Jesus is risen and alive, where is he?
While the question is real, valid and practical, the response of Christianity is theological. Any attempt to see the Ascension as a way of “clearing the stage,” or merely answering the practical question, totally trivializes the theological meaning of the Ascension. Luke, for example, was quite aware that he had two accounts of the Ascension that would be extremely difficult to harmonize. If the purpose were merely to get Jesus “off the stage,” so to speak, one account would suffice; two different accounts muddy the waters.
For the New Testament — and this is most pronounced in John’s Gospel — the Ascension a part of the one great saving act of God in Christ. It is sometimes referred to in Greek as the katabasis, “descent,” and anabasis, “ascent.” The hymn in Philippians (2:6-11) shows this marvelously: “Jesus Christ, equal with God, emptied himself and became human, was obedient even to death of cross. But God raised him on high (both the Resurrection and Ascension) and exalted him above all creation.”
Although the notion of “ascension” is spatial, the theological content is not spatial at all. The “ascension” is inextricably connected to and gets its meaning from the Exaltation of the Risen Christ at the right hand of the Father. The Ascension and Exaltation are the culmination of the Word becoming flesh and living among us. One cannot stress enough that it is the one great saving act of God in Christ, achieving its fulfillment in the final revelation of Christ as exalted Lord at the right hand of the Father.
Of course, this is all very “theological,” until we realize that we have been baptized into Christ and are in a very real way part of his body. Paul states this most clearly in Romans 6:4: “we were buried with him by baptism into death, so as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life.”
Here we are far from the Ascension being merely a “clearing of the stage.” In fact, the Resurrection and Ascension/Exaltation of Christ are now part of our own future as believers.
This is the basis of our solidarity — in faith and mutual responsibility — for and with each other as members of the Body of Christ. This is the basis of our hope when faced with disappointment, frightening disease and even death itself.