My memory isn’t always the best. I joke that the reason I keep my whodunits after reading them is that I’m bad enough at following the plot that I’ll forget who the murderer was and be able to read the story again and have it still be a mystery!
So it’s no surprise that there are also times I get a bit confused with events in Scripture. In this case, the confusion I experience is between the Ascension and the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration stands out with its dramatic “special effects,” its dazzle if you will. I tend to form a mental picture of the Ascension taking place in a similar fashion, but then I have to go back and correct my mistake. The Ascension was more of a quiet denouement, though certainly no less signficant for that.
I suspect I’m not the only person out there who might have this need to make a clearer distinction between the two events. As regards the Ascension, one can gain a better understanding by comparing the accounts in the closing chapters of the Gospels (Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20 and 21). I find it helpful to read from the point where the Resurrection has occurred, the tomb found empty, and then continue straight through to the end of each Gospel – which, by the way, comes swiftly. By the time I complete these readings, a clearer picture emerges.
If you do this yourself, you’ll see that the Gospel writers emphasize this time in different ways. Some include episodes only found in their respective book and no other. Matthew does not explicitly mention the Ascension. Mark’s Gospel has it after a brief summation of what took place on the road to Emmaus, and the time after that, when the disciples have reunited in Jerusalem and Our Lord appears to them at table. In Verse 19, “after he spoke to them,” it says, he was taken up. But how long after? In Luke 24, the Emmaus account and the events afterward are presented in greater detail – and afterward Jesus leads them out to Bethany then is taken up. John Chapter 20, Verse 30 assures us that Jesus performed many signs not written. So there is not one definitive chronological account; this is not unusual with the Gospels, but does not have to be seen as “contradictions” if we look for the deeper implications for our Faith that each account is conveying.
It seems fairly safe to conclude that the most important things to take away from these four Gospel accounts are that Jesus wished to clarify what all the events of His Death and Resurrection meant, namely, that He was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, and that the work of the Church was now to continue through His chosen Apostles.
The commissioning of the preaching of the Gospels to the whole world is the thread running through all of the accounts. Jesus is returning to the Father, having accomplished that for which the Father sent Him. Through signs, He to demonstrated in the physical world enough to show that what He told them about Himself was believable even to mere human perception. Yet He also indicated, through his words, that He desired them to have faith in Him more than in signs and wonders. He promised strength and other powerful spiritual gifts when He would send the Holy Spirit, to enable them to fulfill this commission He gave them.
As a young person, perhaps around the time I was being entertained by the impossible being made to look as if it were possible, thanks to Industrial Light and Magic, I pondered lots of deep mysteries; I tried to see how the material and spiritual worlds fit together. Young people are naturally full of wonder, yet they are somewhat uncomfortable at the same time with mystery. They pounce on contradictions and want to try to explain everything. I would try to do this with the juncture between our world and Heaven, for instance. I would think “Maybe Heaven is another dimension.” Perhaps it was the fifth or another, beyond the four dimensions of physical spacetime. Those thoughts were my mind’s way of trying to tame, label, and put in a neat box that which is beyond any of our comprehension.
Fortunately, I didn’t become overly obsessed with nailing it down to the point that I strayed off into one heresy or another. It was more of a tool I used, to attempt to wrap my mind around certain mysteries, until I grew and learned and my Faith deepened. So although it may have some limited usefulness as a metaphor, depending upon the context, as an actual explanation it’s too flimsy and can be discarded.
What do we think of just hearing the word “Ascension”? Rising to a higher plane? Evolving? Playing free association, so many thoughts can come. When I read or watch science fiction, I speculate about the fantastic – blasting off in a rocket, or pulling a lever and entering the dimension of hyperspace. The mode of travel is a means to another end, to reach the wonders of, say, an alien planet. It’s all good entertainment, and it stretches the mind. Some of it may be possible for humans to bring about in reality someday, and the rest may remain in the realm of fantasy forever. It doesn’t matter, in the end, because fantasy can also reflect deep human truths, as the classics in the genre by Verne, Wells, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and many others have proven.
I think about the history of mankind, how we have evolved and developed and, when we’ve got ourselves in line with God’s plan, improved here and there. I watch the advances of technology with some trepidation as science fiction becomes science fact, and can see how some of it might appeal, yet present great dangers. Having a smartphone is one thing; altering future generations’ genetic codes, or approaching the “singularity” where some speculate artificial intelligence might take over – those are scary prospects, and areas where more than ever we must preach the Gospel so that we make wise decisions and don’t try to usurp the power over our destiny that rightfully belongs to God.
Another pitfall to avoid is an older one that has surfaced in various forms for longer than modern technology has been around. Indeed, it may reflect a reaction against science, in a subconscious way, at least on the part of some of its adherents. I refer to the New Age belief that if we do certain practices, try to evoke certain paranormal phenomena, and so on, we will be guided by, and have the potential to become, “Ascended Masters” in our own right. This set of beliefs proposes that Jesus Christ was just the first, or one of a number of, “Ascended Masters,” and that we can become another Christ through our own efforts and with the aid of reincarnation or occult practices. Some vulnerable souls are attracted to these ideas, but they are being misled. Hopefully if you’re reading this, I don’t really need to warn you not to let yourself fall for these heresies and spiritual traps. But you may know someone who has, and it’s good to educate yourself about such things and be ready to defend the Faith and perhaps help someone caught up in these falsehoods to find the real Truth.
So to summarize: When it comes to thinking about the Ascension, first study Scripture and look for the most important messages Jesus wants us to take away from everything that happened after the Resurrection. Avoid the errors of too much materialism on one side, and of pseudo-spiritual counterfeits on the other. Focus on the simple message this day brings, which is to go and make disciples of all nations, knowing that our Risen and Ascended Jesus is with us – to the farthest reaches of time and space.