The theological study, “The Ascension of Christ,” shows us why the ascension is an important and necessary mystery of Christianity: It is the link between Christ’s resurrection and his second coming. It marked a new beginning, opened a new era, and drove the future course of history.
The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine, by Patrick Schreiner (127 pages, Lexham Press, 2020)
Christians proclaim the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. His ascension to heaven, celebrated forty days after Easter, all too often gets short shrift, or is treated as an afterthought. Most suggestive is the fact that in many dioceses of the Catholic Church today its commemoration is shifted from the Thursday forty days after Easter to the following Sunday; the end result being that we are now free of the burden of thinking about the Ascension at all on the day (numerically significant, as it turns out) on which it actually happened. And if we tend to mentally wrap up the ascension together with the resurrection, this is understandable given that some of the New Testament writers did the very same thing, and for sound reasons. Yet the ascension is a distinct event in the life of Christ and of the church.
This new, short theological study shows us why the ascension is an important and necessary mystery of Christianity. It will leave you with a new appreciation for this biblical event and a desire to celebrate it. The author is a Protestant minister; what he has written is “mere Christianity” that is as welcome to this Catholic reader as it will be to many a Christian. The book is written and set forth clearly and lucidly. Dr. Schreiner points out that the ascension, although it is recounted only by Mark and Luke (the latter in his gospel and again at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles) is alluded to in several other passages of the New Testament and was clearly important to early Christians, being found in all the early Creeds. Jesus himself alluded to it on two occasions (including during his trial before the Sanhedrin), presenting it as a sign of his divinity.
The ascension appears as the necessary link between Christ’s resurrection and his second coming. Dr. Schreiner sees it as “the triumph of Christ’s story” and “the hinge on which the New Testament turns.” It was Christ’s “exaltation,” verifying in a public manner the resurrection, which happened in secret, and putting the seal on Christ’s incarnation and his whole life’s work. In the ascension the human Jesus went to heaven, thus uniting heaven and earth. This is why the fact of a bodily ascension is important, because in a sense it completed the incarnation. In the incarnation Christ took on human flesh; in the ascension, he brought that fleshly nature to heaven.
Yet this might be one of the reasons we neglect the ascension, because we find it physically embarrassing. Whereas the resurrection happened mysteriously and secretly, the idea of a man floating into the ether like a hot air balloon in full view of a group of witnesses—followed by his sitting down in a magical throne in the sky—seems just too naïvely literal. Yet this event, however it happened physically, was a visual symbol, to the senses of his disciples, that expressed Jesus’ leaving the world and going to the Father. Dr. Schreiner quotes the theologian Thomas Torrance: “The ascension… cannot ultimately be expressed in categories of space and time.”
Dr. Schreiner argues that the ascension—which consists of two parts, the ascension itself and the session, or Jesus’ sitting at the right hand of God—brought to fulfillment Jesus’ his roles of prophet, priest, and king. In ascending to heaven, then sending the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Jesus became universally available to all rather than being limited in space and time. From heaven (“the control room of the universe” in Dr. Schreiner’s marvelous phrase) he intercedes for us and directs all things until the end of time.
The book brilliantly brings out the expansive scope of the ascension, a scope many believers may never have suspected. We learn that the ascension has cosmic, political, and liturgical dimensions. It is cosmic in that it makes a statement about the objective reality that Jesus reigns in heaven. It is political (in the broad sense of that term) in that Christ’s ascent to heaven implies that we must worship him in addition to viewing him as our brother here on earth; he is our true king. The ascension is also liturgical: We enact the movement of ascent in our rituals and sacraments, reflecting Christ’s glorification; think of the priest’s raising of the Eucharistic host, for example.
The ascension might in fact be described as Christ’s final ascent, for the shape of Christ’s story is a zig-zag series of descents and ascents. Jesus descended to earth in the incarnation. From then on it was a continuous upward movement. He is spoken of as having “gone up” to Jerusalem, the spiritual summit of Judaism and the place of his passion. Then in his resurrection he rose again, another ascent. The ascension to heaven completes this upward movement. Ten days later the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, enabling them to spread the message of Christ throughout the world. We believe that Christ will come again (i.e., descend) in the same way as he ascended—as the angelic figures in white promised in the ascension account in Acts. This will be the true finale of his work and of history. “In the apostles’ minds,” Dr. Schreiner explains, “the upward movement of Jesus rising from the dead continued in the ascension.” This dramatic upward sweep in Jesus’ life could only have been completed by the miracle of the ascension.
Dr. Schreiner omits to discuss number symbolism, but this too bolsters his thesis. Luke says that the ascension took place forty days after the resurrection, during which time the risen Jesus appeared various times to the disciples. Theological authority attributes to the number forty the idea of imperfection, or of earthly time, which is then perfected by the fifty days completed at Pentecost. “In the Old Testament numerology,” writes Pope Benedict XVI, “forty signified the age of the world… and hence the brokenness, the finite, incomplete and toilsome nature of all earthly existence.” Recall that Lent also lasts forty days and is a period of purification and preparation. In light of this, the ascension stands out even more as a goal and an event in its own right—the event to which the risen Jesus’ appearances were leading, and which would in turn lead to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
You will not see the ascension in quite the same way after reading this helpful monograph. Christ’s departure is, Dr. Schreiner observes, “an odd event, only narrated in a few verses.” It can even seem a bit cryptic. St. Mark states almost matter-of-factly, “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.” Dr. Schreiner succeeds in removing much of the ascension’s opaqueness, helping us to see its place in the whole life of Christ and of the church. For Christ did not rise from the dead in order to stay on earth; he rose in order to ascend to heaven and prepare a place for us. The ascension, no less than the resurrection, is thus our glory as well. It is, after all, the ascended Lord who is “currently reigning” and who is the object of our prayers.
Certainly, the great artists of the West have recognized the beauty and gloriousness of the ascension and have clothed it in unforgettable imagery. If the image of the ascension is less central to us today, if it has become a “forgettable event,” perhaps this is because we have lost a sense of what connects the gospel events into a coherent whole. Dr. Schreiner’s call to reconsider a “neglected doctrine” could thus be extended to a revival of a neglected feast. As one of five Solemnities of the church year, the Ascension certainly deserves our thoughts of God’s great deeds, our devoted liturgical worship, and our prayerful leisure.
We have been dwelling on the ascension’s glory, but there also comes with it the sadness that marks any loved one’s departure. In this it is truly different from the unmixed joy of the resurrection. As the disciples stared up in amazement at the heavens after Christ’s ascent, they must have felt anew the pang of their Lord’s absence. Yet at that very moment they were consoled by two angels who assured them that Christ would return. Just ten days later God would come to them again in the Holy Spirit, whose power would accompany the disciples in their mighty deeds as they spread the knowledge of Christ to the world. Thus, the ascension marked a new beginning, opened a new era, and drove the future course of history. If, as Oscar Wilde argued, the Resurrection was the instigating event of our civilization, surely the Ascension was not far behind.
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The featured image is “Ascension” (1775) by John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.