Ascension of Jesus Christ

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The Church believes that the risen Jesus "ascended into heaven" in body and soul (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [32d ed. Freiburg 1963] 11, and in the creeds generally).


In its widest sense the Ascension includes three moments: the final historical departure of Jesus from His disciples, the metahistorical passage and entry into heaven, and the exaltation, also metahistorical, "at the right hand of the Father." Three groups of NT texts describe these three moments: those that narrate the visible departure of Jesus as a terminus a quo; those that treat of the Ascension from a primarily theological aspect, more or less explicitly referring to the witnessed departure while concentrating on the metahistorical victory; and, finally, those texts that refer to the exaltation of Jesus as a terminus ad quem without explicit mention of the previous moments. This article under the heading "Biblical" treats the first two moments.

Visible Departure. The primitive kerygma recorded in 1 Cor 15.38 mentions no final leave-taking of the risen Jesus. The early Jerusalem preaching (see below) refers to Jesus' departure only in as far as it is theologically significant and never turns to the material details of when, where, and how that are the indispensable data for the historian. The early preaching, for which the continual presence of the risen Jesus with believers (Mt 28.20) was the all important datum, may well have considered such details irrelevant. The departure of Jesus did not alter essentially the relation of the believer to his Lord. He had been seen, and He would be seen againsoon, they hoped; meanwhile, His invisible presence perdured.

As years lengthened into decades and fervent hope for the parousia was tempered by the full realization that no one knew the exact time of the future return (Mk 13.32; Acts 1.67, 11), the second generation of Christians desired to know further details about the final visible departure of Jesus. Luke responded by gleaning from the first-generation preaching and its documentary precipitate (Lk 1.14) such details as he could concerning the when, where, and how of Jesus' departure.

The final chapter of St. Luke's Gospel describes appearances of the risen Jesus to the disciples at Emmaus (24.1333, 35), to Peter (24.34), and to the Eleven (24.3643). The narrative seems to place these events on the day of the Resurrection (24.13), and the following discourse (24.4449) is not distinguished in time from the preceding meal. The notice of the Ascension then occurs with no indication of its being separated from the preceding materials. "He then [Gr. δέ] led them out towards Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted [aorist] from them and was carried up [imperfect] into heaven " (24.5051). The italicized words are found in P75, B, A, W, and Θ, but they are omitted by S, D, and the Western tradition, perhaps because of the difficulty of harmonizing these verses with Acts 1.112. The form and the language of this notice are filled with cultic connotations. Certain data are, however, of a primarily historical nature. At first glance, since the day of the Resurrection frames all the other events in this chapter, it seems that Luke has placed the Ascension during Easter night (see 24.29). Yet there are no indications of time in this chapter after 24.33, and their absence might well be deliberate and theologically motivated. Luke depicts Jesus' departure as occurring after He had led His disciples out of Jerusalem up the western slope and over the crest of Mt. Olivet to Bethany (15 stadia from Jerusalem, according to Jn 11.18, or about 1 5/8 miles). There, in the very act of blessing them, He made His final departure (verb in the aorist). The next action is presented as a progressive movement that takes time (verb in the imperfect), as the risen Jesus is borne into the sky. Even here the simply physical movement is described with the theologically evocative ναφέρειν, usually used in the NT for an offering of sacrifice.

The Ascension also figures in the canonical conclusion of Mark (Mk 16.19), which is the Gospel reading for the Feast of the Ascension in the Roman rite. The text is certainly canonical and inspired (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1502), and the verse in question may even belong to a very archaic creed, but historically speaking the notice is dependent upon the traditions recorded in Luke and John and thus cannot be treated as a primary witness.

The only lengthy description of Jesus' Ascension in the NT is Acts 1.111 (the epistle for the feast in the Roman Missal). Luke begins by recapitulating his Gospel, noting that his first volume had extended "until the day that [Jesus] was taken up" (Acts 1.2.the original Western tradition may have omitted the verb). The events that were framed as a miniature within the "day" of the Resurrection Luke now sketches on a broader temporal canvas. The appearances of the risen Lord are now said to have occurred "during 40 days" (1.3), a number that need not be taken as exact (cf. Acts 13.3031; Mk 1.13) but simply as referring to a rather lengthy period. After noting Jesus' final instructions (1.45, 78; cf. Lk 24.4749), Luke begins his description of the Ascension itself with the words, "he was lifted up before their eyes, and a cloud took him from their sight" (1.9). The narrative unmistakably emphasizes that the departure had been witnessed. The language, however, is highly charged theologically. The verb of v. 9a is usually used in the NT of gestures associated with prayer and hope (cf. Lk 18.13; 21.28; 24.50); in v. 9b the cloud (cf. Lk 9.3435) is represented as bearing Jesus off as on a chariot (cf. 2 Kgs 2.1012; Ps 103[104].3). The witnesses did not grasp the full significance of this leave-taking. But while "they were still staring after him into the sky," a revelation given by "two men in white garments" (1.10; cf. Lk 24.4) enabled them to begin to penetrate what they had seen. This last glimpse of the risen Jesus borne into heaven on a cloud was a sign and promise of how He would appear again (cf. Mk 13.26; 14.62 and parallels). Luke's narrative then closes with a reference to Mt. Olivet as the scene of the departure (cf. Lk 24.50).

Entrance into Glory. The next question concerning the Ascension moves from the area of the historically verifiable to the metahistorical. No passage says that the disciples understood that this was the last appearance of Jesus to them in their lifetime. Ever since His Resurrection His visible presence had not been continuous, but He had appeared to His disciples only to vanish again (Lk 24.31). Where was He at other times? The answer (implicit in the arrangement of the materials in Luke ch. 24) is explicit in Jn 20.17. On the morning of the Resurrection, Jesus, appearing to Mary Magdalene, says: "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Rather go to my brothers and tell them 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" The disciples first saw Jesus on that evening (Jn 20.19). Evidently, in John's thought, when the risen Jesus left Mary Magdalene, He ascended to heaven. Thence He returned for each later appearance. Thus an "ascension," a return to the Father's glory (see glory [in the bible]), is implied after every appearance of the risen Jesus. He was no longer earthbound, and the Ascension was linked immediately with His Resurrection as part of a single movement from the grave to glory. Eventually the term "Ascension" was reserved for what had proved to be the final leave-taking of Jesus.

What happened to Jesus after His departure? An answer to this can be had only from revelation. The archaic Jerusalem kerygma presumed the fact of the Ascension (Acts 5.3031) and probed its metahistorical aspect by applying the words and concepts of the OT to what the disciples had witnessed (Acts 2.3335, using Ps 109[110].1). The Pauline didache of Eph 4.710, in like fashion, uses Ps 67(68).19 to show that "he ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things." Thus the Ascension brought everything in the universe into contact with the risen Jesus. The ancient Christian hymn quoted in 1 Tm 3.16 links "taken up in glory" with "seen by angels" and thus specifies those who witnessed the Ascension victory. The baptismal didache of 1 Pt 3.1822 specifies still further that "the spirits that were in prison" (i.e., fallen angels, conceived as imprisoned in the lower "heavens"; cf. Eph 1.2021; 2.2; Col 2.15) became subject to the risen Jesus as He ascended. The Ascension is used in the Epistle to the hebrews as a theological fact linked to the priesthood of Jesus, who passed through the heavens as a great high priest (Heb 4.14) to enter the heavenly sanctuary (6.1920; 9.24).

Ascension in Early Christian Literature. The writings of the Apostolic Fathers contain no reference to the Ascension, but Judeo-Christian literature, with its distinctive theological methodology, exploited it fully. These writers added Psalm 23 (24) to those already used in the NT as loci for the Ascension. Their central interest was the manifestation of Jesus' victory in the realm of the angels, both good and bad; but the details they give are patently nonhistorical.

In the writings of Justin the perils inherent in using the Jewish Ascension imagery appear, for he was compelled to defend the fact of Jesus' Ascension (1 Apology 50) as something quite different from the "ascensions" of Dionysus, Bellerophon (1 Apology 54), and Heracles (Dialogue 69). Irenaeus reaffirmed the basic fact of the Ascension (Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching, 8385), evidently depending upon Acts 1.912, and he used Psalms 23(24) and 67(68) to develop the theological aspects of the event.

The centrality of the Ascension in the faith of the Church is witnessed not only by the most archaic creeds but also by the Roman canon, where it figures with the Passion and Resurrection in a summary of Jesus' whole redemptive work.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 144150. f. j. schierse, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 5:358360. e. lucchesi-palli, ibid. 362363. p. benoit, "L'Ascension," Revue biblique 56 (1949) 161203, repr. in Exégèse et théologie, 2 v. (Paris 1961) 1:363411. j. daniÉlou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, ed. and tr. j. a. baker (Chicago 1964) 248263. e. h. schillebeeckx, "Ascension and Pentecost," Worship 35 (1961) 336363.

[j. d. quinn]


The Ascension of Jesus Christ, theologically speaking, is first a mystery of faith; second, it is an event that has a meaning in God's plan to save mankind because it concerns the human nature of Christ; and, third, it has, as an essential element in the mystery of salvation, a meaning in the life of each Christian now and for eternity.

Mystery of Faith. As an object of faith the Ascension is not something the contemporary believer can see or sense in any way (see mystery [in theology]). The reality one believes is that the human nature of the risen Christ has been taken into the sphere of divine life with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in power and majesty. This reality of Christ's bodily entry into a new order of existence transcends the experience of one's human senses and imagination and as a result can only be inadequately represented in the human expressions used to describe it. One must be careful, therefore, not to mistake the total reality of faith with the presentation that is used in Scripture to express it. One uses the word "Ascension" for either or both the invisible aspect, or theological fact of Christ's exaltation and glorification with the Father in heaven that in this area is the principal object of faith; and the visible aspect, or historical fact (also object of faith) of Christ's manifestation of His glory that was incorporated in His last farewell on Mt. Olivet (Acts 1.3, 911). The latter is also a sign of the divine reality contained in the former.

Salvation Event. The role of theology is to investigate the meaning of this event, as an object of faith, and to examine and elucidate its meaning in relation to the other mysteries of faith and the final goal of mankind. What then is the theological significance of this exaltation of Christ's manhood? The dogmatic definition of Chalcedon, that Christ is one Person in two natures, implies that one and the same Person, the Son of God, also took on a visible human nature. In His humanity Christ is the Son of God. Therefore Christ is God in a human way and man in a divine way. Everything Christ does as man is therefore an act of the Son of God; His acts then are a penetration of a divine activity into a human activity (see theandric acts of christ). His human love is the embodiment of the redeeming love of God. Now it is precisely because the human acts of Christ are divine acts of the Son of God that He can fulfill God's promise of salvation in the concrete way intended by God. As divine acts in visible human form they possess a divine saving power and are therefore causes of man's salvation, accomplished in time and space but transcending the limits of time and space. Although this is true of every human action of Christ, it is especially true of those actions that, though enacted in His human nature, are by nature acts of God (because actions are done by persons) bringing man back to Himself. This truth is realized in a special way in the great mysteries of Christ's life: His Passion, death, Resurrection, and exaltation to the side of His Father.

St. John and St. Paul (each in his own way) link the Ascension with Christ's death and Resurrection and point out its relationship in the total picture of salvation. John's Gospel gives a central place to the redemptive work of Christ in His death and Resurrection. It must be remembered, however, that for John "glory" and "lifted up" refer to all the aspects of salvation: Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension (Jn 12.3233; 3.13; 6.63). For John the Resurrection and Ascension are but two aspects of the same mystery (Jn 13.1). Exalted in glory at the right hand of the Father (Jn 12.23; 17.5), Christ sends the Holy Spirit (Jn 7.39) and through Him extends His dominion over the world (Jn 16.14).

For Paul the Ascension takes on a value in terms of man's salvation because Jesus was not only a man among men, but a new Adam (Rom 5.18). Hence each event of Christ's life modifies the condition of our own life to the very depths of our being. The mystery of man's salvation, accomplished by Christ, is not simply paying a debt or a buying back, but rather it is a mysterious but very real transformation of mankind in Christ. Salvation, in its most profound reality, is for Paul the God-Man in the Person of the Son incarnate, agreeing to succumb to the power of death but soon snatching His victory from it by His Resurrection. His Ascension renders this victory definitive. Mankind thus enters into the sphere of the Trinity once and for all in the Person of the Word incarnate as the Epistle to the Hebrews insists (Heb 9.26; 10.10). Nothing henceforth will be able to separate from God the human nature that has entered into heaven. The Ascension of Christ, then, is the ascension of man, united to the divinity, arriving substantially at its goal, substantially served forever. "But God even when we were dead by reason of our sins, brought us to life together with Christ and raised us up together, and seated us together in heaven in Christ Jesus" (Eph 2.46). This passage is especially interesting because it shows how the mysteries of Christ's death, Resurrection, and Ascension were linked in Paul's mind as one great mystery of salvation. For the formulas used here"to be given life together with Christ," "to be raised up from death together with Christ," and "to be seated together with Christ in heaven"have the same meaning in Paul's mind, the salvation of mankind in Christ Jesus Our Lord.

Christian Meaning. The fact that Christ's Ascension has vital meaning for each Christian was forcefully pointed out in Christ's words: "It is expedient for you that I depart. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you" (Jn 16.7). Hence the departure of Christ in His physical humanity was to be the inauguration of a new presence of Jesus, more profound and fruitful, for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would now come to live in a new way in the individual Christian. St. Paul makes it clear in the above text from the Ephesians that Christ's exaltation was the beginning of our own glory by reason of the mysterious living unity that we have with the physical Christ, who is now with the Father. St. Thomas, following Paul, maintains that our contact with Christ in glory is not merely something in the future, but now, in the present, and is indeed a marvelous basis for hope (Summa theologiae 3a, 57.6 and ad 2; cf. 2 Cor 5.1618).

Though Christ possessed the fullness of the Spirit throughout His life, He could communicate it to others only by His death, that is, by His death, glorification, and Ascension, which taken together form the unity of mysteries that conditioned the coming of the Holy Spirit. In departing physically by His Ascension, Christ promises a far richer presence in the Spirit. In promising His Apostles that He would not leave them orphans, Christ indicates that only after His return to the Father would they discover His enduring presence with them that is modeled after the presence of the Father and the Son to one another in the Trinity (Jn 14.1821). St. Augustine compares the presence of Christ with us after His Ascension to His presence with the Father after His Incarnation. Pope St. Leo says that Christ became more fully present as God on the day He became less present as man.

As a pledge of our own glory, the mystery of the Ascension points out clearly that human nature in its totality, the embodied human person, is now glorified with Christ. In Christ Jesus the final effect of our grace of adoption is attained, the Redemption of our body. In Him, too, the yearning of all creation toward its full achievement is resolved at the same time. What this means for the Christian in his practical everyday life is beautifully expressed in ch. 4 of St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians. By means of Christ's Ascension the individual Christian is enabled to mature to the full stature of Christ his head. He is drawn by the gift of the Spirit toward his own personal fulfillment, and that of the whole universe, in Christ in one simultaneous movement of faith, hope, and love.

See Also: resurrection of christ.

Bibliography: b. vawter and j. heuschen, "Ascension of Jesus," Catholicisme. Hier, aujourd'hui et demain, ed. g. jacquemet 1:887888. j. h. bernard, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. j. hastings, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 2:151157. l. cerfaux, Christ in the Theology of St. Paul, tr. g. webb and a. walker (New York 1959). f. x. durrwell, The Resurrection: A Biblical Study, tr. r. sheed (New York 1960). w. k. m. grossouw, Revelation and Redemption, ed. and tr. m. w. schoenberg (Westminster, Md. 1955). e. h. schillebeeckx, Christ: The Sacrament of the Encounter with God, tr. p. barrett et al. (New York 1963); "Ascension and Pentecost," Worship 35 (May 1961) 336363. r. schnackenburg, New Testament Theology Today, tr. d. askew (New York 1963). p. benoit, "L'Ascension," Revue biblique 56 (1949) 161203, repr. in Exégèse et théologie, 2 v. (Paris 1961) 1:363411. c. davis, Theology for Today (New York 1962). p. miquel, "Christ's Ascension and Our Glorification," Theology Digest 9 (1961) 6773.

[j. c. murray]