Of all the episodes in the life of Christ, the Ascension is among the most difficult to make sense of today. A literal understanding of the account would have Jesus being asphyxiated in the thin air around 7,500 feet above sea level. The saving message of this narrative lies in its symbolic message, that God’s invincible grace remains available to all.
‘Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’ (Lk 24:49)
Have you felt the risen Christ mysteriously at work in your world?
What power has Christ given you to continue his mission?
All four Gospels recount that at a certain point after the resurrection, the risen Christ ceased to appear in the flesh. Only Luke recounts how this final departure happened. In his telling it resembles the biblical story of the ascension of Elijah (2 Kgs 2:11-12) and nonbiblical accounts of the ascensions of Enoch, Abraham, Moses and Isaiah that were popular among the Jews of Luke’s time. In these narratives, a summons from above results in a chosen character ascending through multiple heavens. These celestial spheres are home to angels, spirits and other heavenly beings who have power over the worlds below them. Each higher level of being has power over everything in the lower spheres, and all these heavens are under the power of God, whose throne is above them all.
It was likely that this was the context in which Luke read Daniel’s prophecy of a mysterious savior called “one like a son of man” (Dn 7:13). Ascending on a cloud, this being approaches the throne of God, where he receives divine glory and honor and eternal kingship. In Luke’s mind, Jesus embarked on this journey at his ascension. After Jesus left his disciples at the Mount of Olives, he came ultimately to the Father’s own throne on high. Luke says as much when he describes Stephen’s death. The dying martyr looks into the sky and declares, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). In Luke’s account, Jesus’ ascension is both a fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy and the climactic event of the incarnation. In the risen Christ, humanity has taken its place at God’s side, and the Father has placed every power in heaven and on earth under Christ’s feet.
Luke ends his Gospel account with an image that reflects its opening episode. Gabriel said to Mary, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Lk 1:35). Now that same power is at work again. Jesus tells his disciples, “And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Lk 24:49). The power of God on high has been at work throughout Luke’s Gospel. Just as that power worked through Mary at Christ’s incarnation, so now it works through Christ’s disciples as they continue his mission.
Their mission is now ours, and Christ is ready to share the same power with us. Any who commit their lives to Christ’s saving mission can trust that their efforts will be supported with a strength even death cannot conquer.