Ascension of Our Lord

Have you noticed that Luke is the only evangelist to record the Ascension?

Acts 1:8
"You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." - Acts 1:8 (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

May 10, 2018

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Commentary on Luke 24:44-53

Have you noticed that Luke is the only evangelist to record the Ascension?

In Matthew 28:16-20 the ascension is presupposed, as it is also in John 21:22, when Jesus says: “If it is my will that he (the beloved disciple) remain until I come, what is that to you.” And Mark does not even mention it!

Why this lack of consensus on something so crucial for Christian theology as is Jesus’ return from heaven at the end, the so-called Parousia? For if Jesus is going to come back from heaven he has to first be there, and this is only possible via the Ascension.

The best way to explain this conundrum is to say that the gospels reflect different views on how the kingdom was going to be established, either by interruption of history through an eschatological coming of Jesus from heaven, or through the transformation of history by the issuing of the kingdom on earth.

Luke seems to be making narrative and theological space for the birth of the church, a view that he will develop in the book of Acts. The church will be the main focus of Luke’s theology so much so that the promise of Jesus’ return from heaven in Acts 1:11 will slowly disappear from the narrative.

Luke has two accounts of the Ascension, one in the gospel, one in Acts. The one in the gospel is placed at the end of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 24:44-53) and its purpose seems to be the vindication of his ministry. The one in Acts is placed at the beginning of the apostles’ ministry (Acts 1:6-11) and the purpose seems to be the authorization of their work of proclamation.

Luke 24:44-53 in its immediate context

Jesus is not with the disciples anymore (verse 44), and yet he shows up. Where has he been between the resurrection and now? For one thing, he has already been with a couple of his disciples on the road to Emmaus, where they realized who he was during the blessing of the bread at the meal. But Jesus vanished from their sight, only to reappear in Jerusalem, where the rest of the disciples were gathered (verses 33-43). There they can corroborate that he is not a ghost, for he shows them the signs of the crucifixion. The one who shows up in their midst, even when according to John 24:19 the doors were locked, is the crucified one, now risen.

In Luke 24:27 and 24:44 Jesus explains to the disciples the scriptures to show them that everything about his ministry was already written. But they needed to know how to read it.

The mention of Moses, the prophets, and the psalm is a reference to the three divisions of the TANAK, the Hebrew Bible: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. By the time Luke wrote these three sections were already considered authoritative.

That Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures in verses 45-47 is an expansion of what he told the Emmaus travelers in verse 27. Now scriptures have to be read in messianic key. This is a message for the Lukan community, which needs to learn how to read scripture with the new lenses provided by Jesus’ life.

Luke develops a history of salvation with a number of components: Jesus’ death and resurrection, repentance, and forgiveness of sins proclaimed to all nations. This sets the program for Acts, as clearly seen in Acts 1:8. The Jewish roots of the movement are stressed but the movement is not limited to Israel. It now includes the Gentiles, the nations.

The Holy Spirit is promised as fulfillment of the Father’s promise; thus, it is the promise of a promise. The nascent church needs power in order to carry on its ministry effectively.

After the Ascension the disciples return to Jerusalem with great joy and are in the temple continually blessing God. Luke starts his gospel with similar ideas. Zechariah has a vision in the temple where he is informed by an angel of the impending birth of a son, John. The announcement was going to produce joy and gladness (Luke 1:14). At both ends of the book the temple plays an important role, pointing to the Jewish roots of the church. It stresses continuity rather than separation.

Reciprocal blessing: Jesus blesses the disciples (verse 50) and they, in turn, bless God in their liturgical life (verse 52). This reciprocity needs to be understood alongside the notion of patron and client. When Jesus blesses the disciples, he is mediating the blessing of God, the heavenly Patron, and this always means something positive, the opposite of cursing. When humans bless God, it refers to the praise and honor that clients were to give the patron.

Relevance for today

We noticed that not all the gospels acknowledge the Ascension as part of Jesus’ life. Some assume it (Matthew, John), some ignore it (Mark). By doing this they displayed a theological autonomy that is seldom seen today and which we need to recover if we want to engage in authentic ecumenical dialogue.

Like the first Christians, we have to find a hermeneutical key into scriptures. For them it was Jesus as God’s Messiah. For us that is already part of our tradition but it still needs to be reinterpreted because it has ceased to be a self-evident concept, as it was for those early believers. The temporal and cultural distance between the world of the Bible and ours is so abysmal that we need to get hold of as many methodological mediations as we can in order to make sense of the text. Some of these are historical, some are literary, and some are hermeneutical, but we need to use all of them if we want to avoid anachronism and ethnocentrism, which are the two capital sins of any interpretive task.

What is the meaning and role of power in the Church today? How do we use it? Is it power over? Is it power to? Or is it power with? The three are different manifestations of power but while the first is oppressive, and the second paternalistic, only the third type is the power that comes from the Holy Spirit. It is the power to witness together: “power with,” a democratic, egalitarian kind of power, which makes the difference between an institution that is bent on self-preservation and one which understand its vocation as prophetic witness in society.

How can the idea of praising God be detached from its 1st century idea of patron and client? For that is obviously not our cultural context anymore. These notions were born in an imperial and paternalistic context, where the powerful showed goodness toward the weak and these showed their thankfulness by ascribing honor to them. This is hardly a helpful concept today, and yet it is still very much present in our liturgical life. We should be able to re-phrase much of our liturgies changing not only androcentric and misogynist language, but also imperial language, which is always demeaning. Still noticing the ontological distance between God and us, we should be able to speak of God in more fitting relational terms.