I thought I would offer a quasi-novena of posts on the Ascension, a neglected facet of New Testament theology that is nonetheless an important aspect of Christian faith (important enough to be mentioned in the Creed). By “quasi-novena” I mean I am posting my draft of the chapter on the Ascension from my Creed book starting now and going on each weekday till next Friday, with my customary lighter Saturday fare and my customary nothing fare on Sundays since I take my Sabbath rest on that day. In case you didn’t know, the novena is a nine day period of prayer that is named for the nine days between the Ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. My novena will only cover seven of those days, but whaddayagonnadoo? Anyway, to commence:
Chapter 9 – Ascended into Heaven and Seated at the Right Hand of the Father
Salute the last, and everlasting day,
Joy at the uprising of this Sun, and Son,
Ye whose true tears, or tribulation
Have purely wash’d, or burnt your drossy clay.
Behold, the Highest, parting hence away,
Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon;
Nor doth he by ascending show alone,
But first He, and He first enters the way.
O strong Ram, which hast batter’d heaven for me!
Mild lamb, which with Thy Blood hast mark’d the path!
Bright Torch, which shinest, that I the way may see!
O, with Thy own Blood quench Thy own just wrath;
And if Thy Holy Spirit my Muse did raise,
Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise. – John Donne, Ascension
He Ascended into Heaven
The Resurrection appearances of Jesus culminate in an abrupt end after forty days when, as the Creed puts it, Jesus “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
The Ascension in Scripture
The Ascension occupies a curious place in biblical teaching in that it is frequently alluded to in the New Testament, but only rarely described there as an historical event. That does not mean the New Testament writers doubt its historicity. On the contrary, they talk as though everybody in the conversation takes it for granted as having occurred and are now talking about other things in light of it. So, for instance, John, writing sixty years after the Ascension, records Jesus remarking:
In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (John 14:2-3)
John does this secure in the knowledge that his post-Ascension readers know this refers to Jesus’ Ascension. Mention of the Ascension in this passage is not so much about where Jesus went, but about where we will be going as a result of it.
Similarly, when the high priest asks Jesus if he is the Christ, the son of the Blessed, Mark records Jesus replying, “I am; and you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62)–words that claim not only deity, but an Ascension and a Second Coming as well, because Mark knows his audience understands that Jesus is alluding to this.
Likewise, Paul alludes to the Ascension in Ephesians 4:7-10, not with a description of the apostles’ eyewitness experience, but with a citation of Psalm 68 (a poem which combines imagery of God “ascending on high” to give the law on Mount Sinai with imagery of the Ark of the Covenant “ascending on high” as it was carried in ritual procession to the Holy of Holies in the temple on Mount Zion). Here, the mention of the Ascension is meant to serve as a backdrop to Paul’s discussion of the outpouring of the Spirit that came as a result of it (of which more presently).
This habit of thinking in terms of the Ascension as Christ entering the heavenly temple is also found in the letter to the Hebrews:
Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord… For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. (Hebrews 8:1-2; 9:24)
In fact, only three places in the New Testament describe the historical event of the Ascension as it was seen by the apostles. The first and least certain of these—Mark—does so in the most cursory of words:
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).
Those words, while recognized as inspired and inerrant by the Church, come from a passage that most biblical scholars recognize as a sort of appendix tacked on to the original gospel, summarizing the preaching of Peter and his scribe, Mark, but probably not penned by Mark himself.