Up, Up, and Away
The Ascension of Jesus
Hello friends! This week I am taking a break from the “Was Jesus Divine” series and sharing an edited and expanded post from 2021. Today is Ascension Day on the Christian calendar, which is a concept I find fascinating, especially if we can ask the most important question, “What does it mean?” To catch up on the “Was Jesus Divine?” series click here to read parts one and two.
One last thing before the post. My book tour launches this weekend in the Phoenix area! I’ll be speaking at The Well on Sunday morning at 10am local time in Gilbert. If you’re in the area I’d love to say hi! In the meantime, would you consider leaving a review of my book, “Bible Stories for Grown-Ups” on Amazon? It would be so helpful if you did. Thanks y’all!
Today is Ascension Day on the Christian calendar. It’s a day that remembers a story about the post-Easter Jesus going up, up, and away, ascending to “the right hand of God.” In a lecture the late Bishop John Shelby Spong recounted a conversation with Carl Sagan, in which Sagan said, “Do you know that if Jesus literally ascended into the sky and if he traveled at the speed of light (186,000 MPS), then he hasn’t yet escaped our galaxy.”
Yes, this story is challenging for many of us if we have to take it literally. However, if we can move beyond the “did it or didn’t” level we might just discover the Ascension of Jesus to be a parable that makes some startling claims, both in the ancient world and today.
The first mention of “The Ascension” is in Luke 24, with another telling by the same author in Acts 1. It’s not mentioned in the other Gospels, or in Paul’s writing, which predates the Gospels. In Luke it appears to occur on Easter, but in Acts Jesus ascends forty days after the resurrection, which I find interesting. If the same author wrote Luke and Acts, which is the opinion among scholars, then why not be consistent? That’s something to chase at another time, in another post.
Why doesn’t this event occur in the other Gospels or earliest letters? In the emerging Christian Tradition, the resurrection and ascension seem to have been understood as one event. The idea isn’t that Jesus was resurrected, per se, but that God has raised Jesus up. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul says, “Christ has been raised from the dead.” (v.20) The Gospel of Mark ends with no appearance of Jesus, but only an empty tomb and the announcement that Jesus has been raised.
This isn’t something Jesus does for himself, out of his own power or volition. It’s something God does. Rome rejected Jesus and his kingdom message; God has vindicated Jesus by raising him up to the place of power. Meaning, the crucified Jesus has been taken up into the meaning of God.
Here’s my take: “The Ascension” is a theological story, not a historical one. After all, it does reflect an ancient cosmology—namely a three tiered universe, where heaven is located “up there,” just above the clouds. Why might Luke have told this as a separate story, then? It may help to see this narrative within the larger context of the Bible. The Ascension is actually rooted in some other stories, and Luke intends to evoke those images.
In the Hebrew Bible there are those who are raised, or taken, up:
Genesis 5:24 - Enoch walked with God and disappeared (he was no more) because God took him.
2 Kings 2:11 - They (Elijah and Elisha) were walking along, talking, when suddenly a fiery chariot and fiery horses appeared and separated the two of them. Then Elijah went to heaven in a windstorm.
Danial 7:13-14 - As I continued to watch this night vision of mine, I suddenly saw one like a human being (son of man) coming with the heavenly clouds. He came to the ancient one and was presented before him. Rule, glory, and kingship were given to him; all peoples, nations, and languages will serve him. His rule is an everlasting one— it will never pass away!—his kingship is indestructible.
Luke is especially drawing on the latter two examples. First, he’s using the story of Elijah’s ascension to heaven to frame the rest of the story in Acts. Briefly, before his exit Elijah’s apprentice, Elisha, requests a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit as a parting gift.
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing, yet if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” (2 Kings 2:9-10, NRSVue)
By applying this story to the Ascension of Jesus, Luke is making a similar claim. Just as seeing Elijah depart gave Elisha a double dose of his spirit, so these gathered disciples watching Jesus ascent will receive the Spirit that will empower them to continue the work of Jesus.
Second, the Daniel 7 text occurs in a vision that depicts four kingdoms, all described as beasts—the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, and the Greeks (the last being the empire being critiqued in Daniel). The vision culminates with a human being, representing Israel, establishing a human kingdom, a stark contrast to the violent, beastly kingdoms that preceded it. For Luke to draw on this image is a statement about Jesus, about the kind of messiah he was and the ethos of his kingdom vision. It would also be a statement about Rome, as another beastly kingdom that didn’t rule with justice and humanity.
There’s also another cultural meaning that could’ve been in the minds of the audience of Luke/Acts. On March 15, 44 BCE, Julius Caesar was assassinated. In his will he adopted his great-nephew Octavian as his heir—who would eventually become Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. The same year, 44 BCE, in July, a comet appeared that could be seen in the daytime for seven days. This was fortunate for Octavian, because it was interpreted as the soul of Julius Caesar ascending to the Gods. This led to the deification of Julius Caesar, which made Octavian a “son of a god.”
Ovid describes the deification of Caesar in Metamorphoses (8 CE)
Then Jupiter, the Father, spoke..."Take up Caesar’s spirit from his murdered corpse, and change it into a star, so that the deified Julius may always look down from his high temple on our Capitol and forum." He had barely finished, when gentle Venus stood in the midst of the Senate, seen by no one, and took up the newly freed spirit of her Caesar from his body, and preventing it from vanishing into the air, carried it towards the glorious stars. As she carried it, she felt it glow and take fire, and loosed it from her breast: it climbed higher than the moon, and drawing behind it a fiery tail, shone as a star.
What might this mean? What are the claims being made about Jesus?
God has overruled the emperor by raising Jesus up.
Jesus has ascended to the right hand of God, meaning God has sided with Jesus against the empire.
The Ascension is a provocative, subversive story about the Kingdom of God, personified in the life of Jesus, not only challenging, but overcoming the systems and structures of empire and the ways it oppresses, marginalizes, and dehumanizes people.
One final thought: In Acts 1 it’s interesting what happens just after Jesus leaves.
While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” (v.10-11)
That’s the question: “Why are you standing here?” The implication is that these disciples are being empowered to continue the work of Jesus—the healing, feeding, liberating, peacemaking work that Jesus embodied. It was their question to answer then, and it’s ours to answer now.