[If reading this by email, please tap the title at the top to open your browser for the best experience.]
Giotto, The Ascension of Jesus
The way that we envision the Ascension of Jesus is largely shaped by Luke’s Gospel, as well as by his book of Acts. As the Church’s liturgy observes and celebrates Luke’s presentation of this event, it occurs on the fortieth day after Easter Sunday, which always falls on a Thursday. With diminished weekday worship attendance in most churches, the feast of the Ascension is often observed on the following Sunday, on the Seventh Sunday of Easter. As Luke’s Gospel records the event,
[Jesus] led [the disciples] out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.
In Acts, Luke presents a fuller account of
… the day when he was taken up…, [when] he presented himself alive to them… [H]e said to them, “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Giotto beautifully portrays Jesus’ Ascension in a fresco found within the Scrovegni Chapel (also known as the Arena Chapel) in Padua, Italy. Giotto’s approach to painting proved pivotal in the transition within Western art from dependence upon Eastern Christian iconographic imagery toward a greater realism and sensitivity to ‘ordinary’ human life in this world. Unlike medieval and eastern Christian icons, which tend to be absorbed with expressing dimensions of the eternal, Giotto portrays a real event in the temporal lives of real people. Nevertheless, Giotto’s Ascension is clearly also attentive and faithful to the supernatural elements of the Luke-Acts descriptions of Jesus’ Ascension.
It has been observed that in these modern times, among the most neglected aspects of traditional Christian doctrine is a proper understanding of Jesus’ Ascension. This may be due to a contemporary proclivity to read the New Testament as if its significance is primarily ethical, while shying away from engagement with the metaphysical and the miraculous elements of the Gospel narratives.
A collect from The Book of Common Prayer helps us appreciate why the Ascension of Jesus continues to be a major feast of Our Lord on the Church’s calendar:
Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. (BCP:226)
Jesus ascended not so that he might withdraw from the world, making room as it were for the mission of the Holy Spirit. Instead, his Ascension marked his transition from being present at one time and in one place, to becoming present in all places all the time. Before his death, there were countless places where he was not. After his Ascension, there is no place where he is not. From being with only some of those who lived during his earthly years, he is with all of us now. And from having a particular presence and context for his ministry, Jesus in his Ascension transitioned to a universal presence for his continuing mission, so “that he might fill all things.”
Alleluia. Christ is Risen and Ascended! And in the Holy Spirit he is present everywhere and to all who might welcome him into our lives.
Thanks, Stephen, Your final paragraph presents Jesus’ Ascension in a way in which I had not thought of before. Thanks!