Ascension of Christ
by Garofalo (1520)
The Ascension of Jesus contrasts with the beliefs of
Docetism, in which matter is intrinsically evil and Jesus was said to have
been pure spirit. The canonical account of Jesus ascending bodily into the
clouds contrasts with the gnostic tradition, by which Jesus was said to transcend
the physical realm and return to his home in the spirit world. Scholars of
the historical Jesus commonly reject New Testament accounts of Jesus' resurrection
as inventions of the Christian community in the Apostolic Age. The historical
Jesus is the figure of the first-century Jesus of Nazareth as reconstructed
by scholars using historical methods that include critical analysis of gospel
texts as the primary source for his biography, and non-biblical sources for
the historical and cultural context in which he lived. Use of the term "the
historical Jesus" implies that the figure thus reconstructed may differ
from that presented in the teaching of the ecumenical councils ("the
dogmatic Christ") and in other Christian accounts ("the Christ of
faith"). Some describe the Ascension as a convenient device to discredit
ongoing appearance claims within the Christian community.
Jesus died circa 30. In the Epistle to the Romans (c.
56-57), Saint Paul describes Christ as in heaven and in the abyss[Rom. 10:5-7]
the earliest Christian reference to Jesus in heaven. The most influential
account of the Ascension, and according to the two-source hypothesis the earliest,
is in Acts of the Apostles[1:1-11] where Jesus is taken up bodily into heaven
forty days after his resurrection as witnessed by his apostles, after giving
the Great Commission with a prophecy to return. In the Gospel of Luke, the
Ascension takes place on Easter Sunday evening. The Gospel of John (c. 90-100)
refers to Jesus returning to the Father.[Jn. 20:17]
In the First Epistle of Peter (c. 90-110),
Jesus has ascended to heaven and is at God's right side. [Pet. 3:21-22] The
Epistle to the Ephesians (c. 90-100) refers to Jesus ascending higher than all
the heavens.[Eph. 4:7-13] The First Epistle to Timothy (c. 90-140) describes
Jesus as taken up in glory.[1 Tim. 3:16] The traditional ending of Mark[16:19]
includes a summary of Luke's resurrection material and describes Jesus as being
taken up into heaven and sitting at God's right hand. The imagery of Jesus'
Ascension is related to the broader theme of his exaltation and heavenly welcome,
derived from the Hebrew Bible. The image of Jesus rising bodily into the heavens
reflects the ancient view that heaven was above the earth.
Painting by Rembrandt
The observance of this feast is of great
antiquity. Although no documentary evidence of it exists prior to the beginning
of the fifth century, St. Augustine says that it is of Apostolic origin, and
he speaks of it in a way that shows it was the universal observance of the Church
long before his time. Frequent mention of it is made in the writings of St.
John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and in the Constitution of the Apostles.
The Pilgrimage of Aetheria speaks of the vigil of this feast and of the feast
itself, as they were kept in the church built over the grotto in Bethlehem in
which Christ was born. It may be that prior to the fifth century the fact narrated
in the Gospels was commemorated in conjunction with the feast of Easter or Pentecost.
Some believe that the much-disputed forty-third decree of the Council of Elvira
(c. 300) condemning the practice of observing a feast on the fortieth day after
Easter and neglecting to keep Pentecost on the fiftieth day, implies that the
proper usage of the time was to commemorate the Ascension along with Pentecost.
Representations of the mystery are found in diptychs and frescoes dating as
early as the fifth century.