In the first book, Theophilus,
I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught
until the day he was taken up,
after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit
to the apostles whom he had chosen.
He presented himself alive to them
by many proofs after he had suffered,
appearing to them during forty days
and speaking about the kingdom of God.
While meeting with them,
he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem,
but to wait for "the promise of the Father
about which you have heard me speak;
for John baptized with water,
but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."
When they had gathered together they asked him,
"Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"
He answered them, "It is not for you to know the times or seasons
that the Father has established by his own authority.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth."
When he had said this, as they were looking on,
he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.
While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going,
suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.
They said, "Men of Galilee,
why are you standing there looking at the sky?
This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven
will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven."
Brothers and sisters:
May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,
give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation
resulting in knowledge of him.
May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,
that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call,
what are the riches of glory
in his inheritance among the holy ones,
and what is the surpassing greatness of his power
for us who believe,
in accord with the exercise of his great might:
which he worked in Christ,
raising him from the dead
and seating him at his right hand in the heavens,
far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion,
and every name that is named
not only in this age but also in the one to come.
And he put all things beneath his feet
and gave him as head over all things to the church,
which is his body,
the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.
Jesus said to his disciples:
"Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer
and rise from the dead on the third day
and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins,
would be preached in his name
to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.
And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you;
but stay in the city
until you are clothed with power from on high."
Then he led them out as far as Bethany,
raised his hands, and blessed them.
As he blessed them he parted from them
and was taken up to heaven.
They did him homage
and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy,
and they were continually in the temple praising God.
We always encounter confusion when we deal with Jesus’ ascension. Only those who ignore Scripture and simply adhere to our yearly liturgical framework are spared the mixed messages our sacred authors convey. Though the vast majority of Christians believe Jesus ascended to heaven 40 days after his resurrection and is securely ensconced in that celestial zip code, only one evangelist actually narrates such an event: Luke in his Acts of the Apostles. It’s clear from Mark, Matthew and John’s narratives that the risen Jesus is simply “out there” somewhere. He/she hasn’t gone anywhere. The risen Christ could “pop up” anytime at anyplace to anyone.
Even today’s Lucan gospel pericope doesn’t appear to describe a definite departure. The passage talks about Jesus being “taken up to heaven,” but within the first verses of Acts he’s again back among his followers teaching them for 40 days. It appears the evangelist is saying only that at this point of salvation history Jesus comes and goes. I, for instance, can “go to the store,” but a little later in the day, I’ll be back. In this case, Jesus is not yet leaving us for good.
The Pauline disciple responsible for the letter to the Ephesians isn’t much help. He simply speaks poetically about the position the risen Jesus maintains in each of our lives. Among other things, God has seated him/her “at his right hand in the heavens, far about every principality, authority, power and dominion and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come.” Beautiful thought, but poetry isn’t history. In some sense it’s parallel to telling your significant other, “The sun and moon rise over you.”
Taking that for granted, the question students of Scripture must answer is, “Why does Luke uniquely remove Jesus?” Why does he disagree with the other three evangelists on that point? He alone claims Jesus leaves and doesn’t come back. He seems to take the ascension literally, not poetically. There must be a reason for him to have developed such a theology.
According to most scholars, Luke uniquely seems to zero in on the importance of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. For him that “promise of my Father” is at the heart of the Christian community. We can’t carry on Jesus’ ministry without the Spirit. How would we know what to do or in what direction to proceed? Jesus’ ministry is a living entity. We don’t just memorize a plan, then keep repeating it. It’s something to be experienced, a new event every day. According to Luke, we’re continually learning there’s more than one way to preach “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Without the Spirit, the message of Jesus dies.
In some sense, Luke thinks it’s necessary to get Jesus “out of the way” before the Spirit “takes over,” the Spirit who will empower us to be Jesus’ witnesses “in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That seems to be why Luke’s angel warns the disciples to stop “looking up to the sky.” The Jesus whom many first century Christians are still expecting to come back in the Parousia is now gone. Though we presume he’ll eventually return, we’ve work to do in the meantime. And it’s the Spirit who will guide us into and through that work. What a shame to miss the main event while we’re waiting for a preliminary event to take place.
Were we in Luke’s place today, what would we want “out of the way?” What’s keeping us from making the Spirit the center of our lives? Any ideas? As a scriptural Catholic I suspect our hierarchical system would garner more than a few votes.