Dear People of the Diocese of New Jersey:
Happy Feast of the Ascension!
A Principal Feast of the Church, the Feast of the Ascension is always on the 40th day after Easter and, so, always falls on a Thursday. Many churches carry over the observance to the Sunday following - the 7th Sunday of Easter.
The Ascension, which has been observed since at least the 4th
century, appears to present us with a paradox. On the one hand, Jesus appears to make a final exit. The author of Luke-Acts (the same person wrote both the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles), tells the story twice. In the Gospel of Luke, the author tells of Jesus gathering the disciples on Easter Day. He gives them his final words and teaching, saying to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Luke writes, "He opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, 'Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 'You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.'" There seems to be urgency in this final teaching.
Following this urgent final teaching, Luke writes, "Then [Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God." Jesus clearly leaves the scene (See Luke 24: 44-53).
Similarly, in Acts, the author writes, "So when they had come together, they asked him, 'Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?' He replied, 'It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.' When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight." Again, Jesus clearly leaves the scene (See Acts 1:6-9).
Contrast this with Jesus' appearance to the disciples in Mathew 28. Matthew writes, "Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'" (Matthew 28:16-20).
That's it. No Ascension. No departure of Jesus. Just those final, reassuring words: "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." With that, Matthew's Gospel comes to an end.
So, which is it? Does Jesus stay or does he go?
We are caught in a paradox.
The Ascension of Jesus marks the end of Jesus' own personal and physical earthly ministry, but it neither marks the end of Jesus nor the end of his ministry. The Church receives Jesus' power and presence at Pentecost, with the gift of the Holy Spirit. As Acts of the Apostles makes clear, Jesus continues to act and work powerfully through his disciples. St. Paul captures this in his reference to the Church as "the body of Christ" (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:27).
The Ascension marks a transition more than a departure. As Troy Trotgruben of Wartburg Seminary observes, "What the ascension of Jesus in Luke-Acts signifies has far less to do with geography (Where Jesus is) than with his exaltation (Who Jesus is). Jesus' ascension firmly establishes him as the Lord and Messiah, exalted at God's right hand in ways not merely physical...In short, the ascension of Jesus speaks volumes about who Jesus is, without without confining him to house arrest until he returns again. [i]
Jesus is exalted to the Father's right hand in heaven. Nonetheless, his Spirit and power remain present in and through his Church on earth. He is, as Matthew makes clear, with us always, "even to the end of the age."
May you feel the presence of the living Christ with you even as you adore him exalted in heaven this Ascension Day.
Faithfully yours in Christ,
The Right Reverend William H. (Chip) Stokes, D.D.
Bishop of New Jersey