Ascension of Our Lord

Waiting is always a holy time, a time to empty ourselves, and be filled with new possibilities

mural with focus on the ascension
Ascension by Father George Saget; from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tennessee; licensed under CC0.

May 18, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on Acts 1:1-11

Forty days after Easter in the liturgical calendar is a festival day, the Ascension of our Lord. I first learned that Ascension was a part of the Christian year when I was a college student studying abroad in Germany. We had a full week off from classes. Families and friendship groups gathered for hiking and picnics. I don’t know that much religious observance happened during that time, but it was great to have a week’s break before the end of the semester.

The author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles narrates two accounts of the Ascension of Jesus: Luke 24:50-53 and Acts 1:6-11. The version in Acts fills in the gaps left by the brief story Luke writes at the end of the Gospel. Acts opens with a prologue (verses 1-5), which parallels the Gospel’s prologue (Luke 1:1-4), including addressing an otherwise unknown person, Theophilus (either Luke’s benefactor or a shorthand term for any believer, since the name means “lover of God”). The respective prologues connect the two volumes, yet while the Gospel’s prologue gives an overview of what is to come, the prologue of Acts summarizes the Gospel even as it introduces the second volume of Luke’s story. Such prologues were a common literary technique in ancient Greek literature.

Acts 1:2 mentions the ascension of Jesus into heaven. This point is not entirely necessary, since Luke will provide a longer narration of the ascension, but it functions to connect the end of the Gospel with the beginning of Acts. While the Gospel of Luke depicts the ascension as taking place on the same day as the resurrection, in Acts the event transpires forty days later. If we believe that Luke was writing an historical account of the life of Jesus and the early church, this might be a difficult point to reconcile. However, Luke is not writing history, but a witness or testimony of the early Christ community designed to bring others to belief in Jesus as the Christ.

According to Acts, during these forty days, Jesus proved to the disciples that he was indeed alive and continued to teach them about the kingdom of God. Like Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness prior to the beginning of his public ministry (Luke 4:1-13), these forty days prepare the discipleship community for challenges which lie before them. Drawing attention to Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God connects the Acts prologue both to the core of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel and creates a literary inclusio (Acts 1:3 and 28:31).

Jesus orders the disciples to stay in Jerusalem “to wait for the promise of the Father,” which is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit they will experience ten days later, on the day of Pentecost. As I discuss in the post for the Third Sunday of Easter, the Holy Spirit is a major theme throughout Luke–Acts. In Acts, the Holy Spirit ensures the continuity of Jesus’ ministry once Christ is no longer physically present among them.

Returning to the “kingdom” theme, the disciples question Jesus, “Lord, is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (verse 6). Their question expresses one aspect of Second Temple messianic expectations. However, Jesus insists that God’s redemption of Israel will not be according to human timelines or by political change, but through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Rather than following a specific timeline, this gift will propel them forward across the geographical landscape; they will become Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth. Indeed, the disciples will take their story of Jesus to Samaria (Acts 8:5), the seacoast (8:40), Damascus (9:10), Antioch (where disciples first called “Christians,” 11:26); Asia Minor (13:13); Europe (16:11), and finally, Rome—though Paul was on his way to the “ends of the Earth,” which for him was Spain.

If we were to think about how the disciples heard what Jesus was telling them, it would sound something like this:

  • Stay here in the big city you are visiting (Jerusalem), until God makes God’s presence known;
  • Then go from this city, to the outlying region (Judea)—the place where you are comfortable;
  • Then go to those people whom you despise, and who despise you (Samaria);
  • Then go to those people you don’t even know, who are probably very different from you (to the ends of the earth).

Jesus ascends into heaven and the disciples stand around looking up at the sky and wondering what he just said and what it all means. The words of the “two men in white robes” (where have we seen them before? Hint: Luke 24:4) probably don’t provide a lot of comfort.

Indeed, as the disciples return to Jerusalem, they initially must have had to grapple with their fear of all that had recently happened; they had to work through their grief and sense of abandonment that Jesus was gone (again!); and they had to deal with the reality that one of the twelve apostles had betrayed them and Jesus and then died a horrific death. They had to wait for God to act. We don’t usually think about Ascension as a time of waiting; that sounds more like Advent. But waiting is always a holy time, a time to empty ourselves, and be filled with new possibilities. Robert W. Wall states well what this time of waiting for God means:

“Waiting for God to act is … a community project. Waiting with others is an act of solidarity with friends. The apostles do not scatter and go their separate ways to await a private Spirit-filling or personal experience of divine faithfulness. They ‘were joined together’ in a specific place to await God’s action on them all.”1

This is Ascension … another time of waiting for the dawn from on high to break upon us.


  1. Robert W. Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 45.