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The Ascension of the Lord

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The Ascension of the Lord. fr Robert Verrill helps us to understand St Luke's account of the Ascension by comparing it with Christ's transfiguration.

With our modern understanding of the world, the Ascension can be rather hard for us to comprehend. After all, surely if you go up and up into the sky, you don't go up into heaven at all, but you just end up going into outer space. So what was it that the apostles witnessed at the Ascension and what does the Ascension actually teach us? Well, there's another story about Jesus which has a number of parallels with the Ascension and that can shed some light on this question. This is the story of Jesus' Transfiguration.

Both the Transfiguration and the Ascension took place on a mountain, and this is significant, because mountains are the kind of place that God likes to reveal Himself. In the Old Testament, both Moses and Elijah had personal encounters with God whilst up a mountain.  Furthermore, in both the Transfiguration and the Ascension, something very dramatic happened to Jesus –  in the Transfiguration, His appearance changed and His clothes became dazzling white, and in the Ascension, He ascended into heaven. Thus, both events reveal something of the glory of Christ which is normally hidden from people's eyes.

It's also significant that a cloud is mentioned in both stories, for in the bible a cloud often depicts the presence of God. We're told this very explicitly in the book of Exodus, where the Israelites were said to have been led by the Lord in a pillar of cloud. The Transfiguration and the Ascension are very reminiscent of this. In the Transfiguration, a cloud overshadowed them and they heard a voice in the cloud saying “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” and in the Ascension, a cloud took Jesus from their view. So the cloud is very symbolic of Jesus' intimate relationship with His heavenly Father.

Another similarity is that in both the Transfiguration and the Ascension, two men appeared: Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration, and two mysterious men in white at the Ascension. At the Transfiguration, Peter wanted to make three booths in some kind of vain attempt to hang onto this experience rather than see it as a preparation for something greater; Peter wasn't at all ready for Jesus' departure.

When it came to the Ascension, the apostles were still not entirely ready. As St Luke recounts, the apostles were left amazed staring into heaven, and they had to be told by the two men in white 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.'

Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about His departure at His Transfiguration, and this departure was fully realised at His Ascension, but it was not a departure that left His disciples abandoned. In fact, the Greek word St Luke uses for departure in his account of the Transfiguration is the word Exodus. Thus, St Luke wants us to understand the Ascension in the light of the Exodus story. Jesus' departure is about leading His people into freedom, into the promised land.

Jesus' departure was difficult for the apostles to accept, but their experience of the Transfiguration and the Ascension helped them to grow up in spiritual maturity so that they could witness to the power of God's redeeming works.  The Transfiguration gave the apostles the courage to accompany Jesus to Jerusalem where they would witness His terrible suffering and death on the Cross, and the Ascension prepared the apostles for Pentecost, that defining moment when the Holy Spirit inspired the apostles to go out into the streets and give witness to the glory of Christ's death and resurrection.

It was at the Ascension, that the apostles came to realise that Jesus Christ had been exalted to the heights of heaven, and although it's difficult to express what it must have been like to come to this realisation, the point is not to dwell on exactly what the apostles experienced, but to dwell on what was promised. The promise of the Ascension is that since Christ has been exalted to the heights of heaven, we too can share in this exaltation. When Jesus' disciples witnessed His Transfiguration, they didn't leave rejoicing because as yet they weren't at all ready to share in the glory that they had witnessed. But after the Ascension, the disciples did leave rejoicing, because it was only then that they began to realise that what had happened to Jesus was going to happen to them. Thus, our hope in our celebration of the Ascension, is that we too will be raised up with Christ and be glorified with Him, and this is certainly a cause for great rejoicing.

Readings: Acts 1:1-11|Ephesians 1:17-23|Luke 24:46-53

The image above is a carved detail from a medieval sarcophagus in the Franciscan cloister in Dubrovnik, Croatia. 


Anonymous commented on 05-May-2016 05:25 PM
Interesting comparison
dominic hyland commented on 06-May-2016 04:54 PM
Great to receive such an inspirational commentary on the Ascension story. Recognising the transcendental nature of the Gospel story is essential to our reading of scripture. Most heartening. Thank you.
James Cardinal commented on 07-May-2016 01:23 PM
Very enlightening homily. Thank you.
Pater Ignotus commented on 08-May-2016 05:28 AM
frater Verrill,

I realize that it takes a whole lot of courage to put out your product for the entire world to see.

So in all gentleness and charity may I point out, that there is a difference in the meaning of 'exult' and 'exalt,' which is what, I believe, you intended to write. :-) But then, I could be mistaken -- and wouldn't that be splendid!
Webmaster commented on 08-May-2016 07:10 AM
Thanks, corrected.
Isaac Chenchiah commented on 16-May-2016 01:47 PM
Very insightful, thank you.

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