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Exit, stage up: the gospels give differing accounts of Jesus' Ascension into heaven, but the message is the same: Christ now has no hands on Earth but ours.

"I DREAD ASCENSION," the priest told me with surprising honesty. It wasn't the concept of ascending to which he objected, of course--it was the preaching of an event that no one fully understands that made him anxious. What is Ascension about, anyway? What does it mean, and why do we celebrate it?

At its most elemental level, the Ascension functions as a stage direction. After Jesus is raised from the dead, there's a wrinkle in the story line that has to be resolved. The Resurrection brings Jesus back among us, which is good news; but by his own admission Jesus has to leave so the Spirit can come. So Jesus has to be removed from the scene again somehow. Since he has already conquered death, the usual departure is not an option. He has to leave by another door. Ascension is that other door.

The evangelists don't agree, however, about when and where that door opened. Mark doesn't record anything beyond Easter morning in his original ending of the gospel. The longer ending added later to Mark's story briefly notes more appearances of Jesus including a final one at table, presumably in the upper room in Jerusalem. There Jesus gives the disciples a good bawling out for not having believed in his earlier revelations to Mary Magdalene and the Emmaus travelers.

Jesus commissions the 11 to get to work proclaiming the gospel, and then the writer excises Jesus with one smooth phrase: "So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God" (Mark 16:19). It sounds so easy--but also offers no details as to how this phenomenon occurred or what it looked like to those still seated at the table.

Compare this account to what Matthew has to say. In his version of the story the male disciples have already received word through the women that Jesus intends to meet up with them back in Galilee. Galilee is a good distance from Jerusalem, so we imagine them hightailing it back home with due speed. Once there, they head for a particular mountain that Jesus apparently indicated for the reunion. Jesus then appears to the 11 for the first time, and Matthew tells us, "When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted" (28:17). The gospel ends with Jesus bequeathing his Great Commission to the 11 and promising to be with them always. After that, Jesus may well have ascended--but Matthew leaves the departure unmentioned.

LUKE IS THE FIRST EVANGELIST TO INVEST HIMSELF IN THE particulars of Ascension. His gospel account does not elaborate much: Jesus led the disciples from Jerusalem to Bethany, a pleasant walk at the end of a long Easter Sunday, raised his hands in blessing, and then "withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven" (24:51). The disciples respond with homage, returning to Jerusalem praising God.

But Luke has another version of this story in his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles. In that reckoning, we hear that Jesus spent 40 days appearing to the apostles, who have been cautioned not to leave Jerusalem until the Spirit comes. They are standing on the Mount of Olives just outside of Jerusalem when the final conversation ensues. Jesus has just announced that his followers will serve as witnesses of the gospel to the ends of the earth when he is "lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight" (1:9).

The apostles watch Jesus move through the sky; this departure evidently doesn't happen in the blink of an eye. Two men dressed in white, the usual angelic protocol, "suddenly" are standing with them and ask why they are wasting time looking at the sky. The angels call their attention to the idea that Jesus will return as surely as he has departed--a reminder that, between then and now, the apostles have work to do.

After that description, we hardly need more. John's gospel records no departure, although Jesus does tell Mary Magdalene on Easter morning not to hold him back because he has yet to ascend, an event that sounds like it could happen any minute. John prefers to spend his witness on a half-dozen post-Resurrection narratives and to hint about "many other things" that Jesus did, more than all the books in the world could hold.

So what are we to believe about the Ascension? Did it happen in the heart of Jerusalem, on a mountain in Galilee, from Bethany or Mount Olivet? Did it occur immediately after the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, or did it take place 40 days later? Are the later appearances of Jesus post-Ascension apparitions of a sort, or was the Ascension the final bodily sighting of Jesus? Did the disciples begin to preach immediately thereafter, rush to the temple to pray, or return to the upper room to await the Spirit? Was there a vision of uplifting, a glorious cloud movement? Were there advisory angels? In short, was there anything to see in the actual departure of Jesus at all?

WHEN WE START CASTING AROUND FOR THE FACTS CONcerning the historical Jesus like this, we put ourselves at risk of missing the story in favor of the history. The gospel writers are each trying to consolidate a generation's worth of theological reflection into a concise paragraph, so they employ symbols to emphasize their points.

Places are archetypal; that is, they mean something when the name is evoked, much like the way the name of your hometown is so much more than just another place. Jerusalem is the holy city where the glory of God chose to dwell. A mountain is the preferred location of divine expression and revelation, as Moses learned at Sinai and Jesus reminds us at the Transfiguration. Bethany is the last place a dead person, Lazarus, was raised up. The Mount of Olives is where Jesus often prayed and also chose to spend his final hours once before. All of these locations are fitting backdrops for the departure of Jesus because they all have great symbolic meaning to the early Christians.

What the gospel writers may be saying above all is that the last place you and I encountered Jesus--wherever that may be--is significant first and foremost because of Jesus, not merely because of the place. Best not to enshrine a location when it's the encounter that matters.

As for dates, telling the story of the Ascension as either an Easter event or a 40-day delay is equally instructive. The first narrative choice maintains our understanding that the Resurrection and Ascension are two notes in the same chord. Both indicate that the life of Jesus has undergone what theologians call a "transfer" from this world to the next. If you want to add 40 days between one event and the other, the biblically significant number reminds us of the consecration of Israel in the desert between Egypt and the promised land, not to mention the desert preparation of Jesus for his ministry. After Easter, we might add, the 40-day preparation period was not for Jesus' sake but for those he left behind with a rather overwhelming commission.

Was the Ascension an event without witnesses, something that happened to Jesus on Easter morning after Mary Magdalene was out of view? Or was there an ocular event, as scholars term it: something apparent to the eyes of 11 astonished men? Luke supplies details, but they are borrowed from apocalyptic sources: upward heavenly movement, clouds as vehicles, and angels bearing instructions. Despite what first seems like a lot of information, we realize Luke tells us very little that is not couched in deliberately familiar symbols. Trying to pin down an historical moment of Ascension, we see, is not something the evangelists will assist us in doing.

ALL THE STORIES OF THE ASCENSION ECHO A MUCH EARLIER story in the Second Book of Kings. There Elijah the prophet has decided to retire. Enough is enough; he's done everything he can possibly do to get Israel and its leadership to repent. Time to pass the mantle, literally, to another. So Elijah throws his cloak over a farmer named Elisha and is soon translated into the heavens by fiery chariot. Elijah reminds us what every good leader knows: Once you've passed the torch of responsibility, time to exit, stage right.

Maybe we should take those instructing angels to heart when they warn the disciples of Jesus to stop looking at the sky. Up is the wrong direction: What happens to the glorified body of Jesus is really out of our control, already out of view, and perhaps none of our business. We have work to do and a commission to fulfill. Going forth to baptize the ends of the earth with the gospel message is a huge undertaking, and it's not going to be accomplished while we sit around and ponder the fine points of Jesus' celestial return.

Mark's gospel may have said it best with his belated and brief notice that Jesus was at once taken up and then sat down at the right hand of God. Glory returned to the place of glory. The Son found his way back to the Father. Jesus is where he belongs. And are we?

The mantle has been thrown to us.

The Ascension: Matthew 28:16-20 Acts 1:1-11

ALICE CAMILLE, author of Invitation to Catholicism (ACTA Publications) and co-writer of the homily service, Prepare the Word (True Quest Communications).
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Title Annotation:testaments
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2005
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