Among the anniversaries in the Church’s calendar of holy days, the ascension of Jesus Christ probably causes modern Christians more embarrassment than joy. Coming forty days after Easter, Ascension Thursday used to be observed with special services and the cessation of ordinary work-a-day activities, but it is likely that May 19 this year finds most church members either entirely unaware of the religious significance of the day or vaguely uneasy that somehow a Christian is expected to believe that Jesus Christ returned to God in heaven by a kind of celestial elevator. Probably no other story in the New Testament creates for the modern reader a greater sense of conflict between what he knows of astrophysics and what he thinks the biblical account necessarily implies.

Statements in the New Testament concerning Jesus’ ascension can be set forth in three categories.

1. The Gospel According to John twice refers to the ascension in an anticipatory manner. In John 6:62, Jesus is represented as asking, “What if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?” and in 20:17, Jesus cautions Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to … my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

2. In the Book of Acts, the account of Jesus’ final departure from his followers is told with circumstantial detail. While speaking with his apostles on the Mount of Olivet, “as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). The same representation, though much more briefly reported, is preserved in the longer ending of Mark (16:19) and in most of the manuscripts of Luke 24:51 (see the marginal reading of the RSV or NEB).

3. Besides anticipatory and narrative references to the ...

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