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, essentially ascending to the right hand of God.
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.
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—a three tiered universe. Why might Luke have told this as a separate story, then? It may help to see this narrative within the context of the Bible. The Ascension is actually rooted in some other stories, I think, intending to evoke those images.
In the Hebrew Bible there are those who are raised 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.
So, this idea of being “taken up,” especially in Daniel 7, should play at least some interpretative role in what we make of the Ascension. It’s making a claim about the kind of person and life that were embodied in Jesus.
There’s also another cultural meaning that would’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. Octavian, who would eventually receive divine honors, became Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, and was worshipped as a God (especially in the Easter empire). 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 the son of a God.
Ovid describes the deification of Caesar in Metamorphoses (8 CE; Jesus would have likely been between 11-13 y/o):
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 (i.e. power), meaning Jesus is above Caesar.
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.
What do we do with this?
In Acts 1 it’s interesting what happens just after Jesus takes flight.
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?”
Maybe what we do is get on with it, we continue with the work that Jesus began, only to find he never left us to begin with.