Ascension of the Lord: God Mounts His Throne to Shouts of Joy

SCRIPTURES & ART: ‘And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:20)

Giotto, “The Ascension,” 1305
Giotto, “The Ascension,” 1305 (photo: Public Domain)

This Sunday is one of those confusing days liturgically, thanks to the “pastoral” initiatives of the Catholic bishops of the United States. If you live in 10 states (mostly in the northeast except for Nebraska), the Solemnity of the Ascension is celebrated on its historical date, i.e., 40 days after Easter, Thursday, May 18. (Sunday, May 21, will be the “Seventh Sunday of Easter.”) If you live in the other 40 states, the bishops have transferred the solemnity to Sunday, May 21. The thrust of my essay is the Ascension.

Both the First Reading and Gospel focus on the Ascension. The Acts of the Apostles is the second of his two-part work on the early Church, probably written for an important Roman convert to Christianity, Theophilus, mentioned by name at the start of both works. The Gospel takes us from Jesus’ birth to his post-Resurrection appearances. Acts takes us from the Ascension through Pentecost and the expansion of the early Church, primarily through the eyes of Sts. Peter and Paul, until both are in Rome.

Acts emphasizes the veracity of Jesus’ Resurrection, leading us to the 40th day after Easter, when Jesus’ regular post-Resurrection physical appearances cease. Jesus has been preparing his Apostles for this, arguably since at least the Last Supper, both by word (his extended teachings in the Gospels of the last two weeks) and action (his disappearance from physical sight when the Emmaus disciples recognize him in the Eucharist). 

That said, lingering old expectations and priorities still stick with the Apostles: the men who have been arguing which was most important (and two of whose mother put in her thoughts on the matter) wonder whether Jesus is about “to restore the kingdom to Israel.” Jesus discreetly changes the question, nicely telling them it’s none of their business: “It is not yours to know the times or seasons. … But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you …” to be Christ’s witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” You want power? You’ll get it, albeit not the kind you expect. You will receive power to carry Christ’s teaching across the globe to prepare for his Second Coming, not to have frontline eschatological seats. (A recent meme put it well. Using a shot from the old “Andy Griffith Show,” it depicts Andy and Opie fishing. Opie asks, “Pa, do we know when Jesus is coming back?” Andy answers, “Nope, son: God put us on the welcome committee, not the planning committee.”)

The disciples are instructed to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus disappears from their sight. They are to wait for the Spirit, without being told how long. Historically, it was 10 days. Jesus did not “pastorally” compress it. The things of God — and preparing for them — sometimes take time (a lesson better underscored if we observe Ascension from its traditional date).

Matthew’s Gospel picks up the same theme as Acts of what kind of power the disciples will receive. They are commissioned and empowered to “make disciples of all nations” (i.e., to the “ends of the world”) by “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” They are to “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you,” just as Jesus made clear last week that following his Commandments is the acid test of true discipleship. And he assures them of his abiding presence, even if “eye does not see” but faith does … in the Eucharist.

In the run-up to this year’s Synod on Synodality, a lot has been said about the Church as a “welcoming” institution. Jesus’ departure commission to the disciples in today’s Gospel also tells us something about what Christian “welcoming” means. Their welcome is to encompass the ends of the world, i.e., “all nations.” The Church “welcomes” by “making disciples.” Discipleship implies discipline; disciples follow a rule, because there are no “autonomous” or “free spirit” disciples. Discipleship should lead to Baptism. Baptism is the sacrament of conversion, the sacrament by which God (not me) changes my identity. In Baptism God invites me to change my thinking about my way, truth and life to adopt him (and his Commandments) as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” The rule those disciples are to be taught is “all that I have commanded you.” Christian welcome is an invitation to a new identity and way of life founded in Christ and his Commandments, a rule of life taught to those who call themselves his disciples by a Church with whom he remains as his body (see Second Reading, Ephesians 1:22-23) “until the end of the world,” consistently leading her in and as “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” 

Today’s Solemnity is illustrated by the early 14th-century artist, Giotto. His fresco, “The Ascension,” is in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, completed around 1305.

The entire work emphasizes upward movement: the very paint strokes, which flick upward; the human figures looking up at the slightly raised pair of angels whose own fingers point upward; the choirs of angels on Christ’s right and left that dynamically appear to be sweeping upward, especially in prayer with their folded hands; Jesus himself whose raised hands seem to open the heavens before him to “sit at the right hand of the Father” toward whom his eyes (“no one has ever seen the Father but the Son,” John 1:18; 6:46) are directed.

The heavenly is underscored both by the upward movement of all the characters as well as the absolute domination of blue hues across the entire work. The only other distinctly strong color is gold, in the halos around the heads of Mary and the eleven Apostles, around the head and body of Jesus (who also rises on a cloud, the usual symbol and shield of the Divine Glory, the shekinah). Gold in medieval Western art and Eastern iconography is the mark of heaven, holiness, divinity. But he is credited with developing a Western medieval religious art that deemphasized some of the Byzantine elements, e.g., Giotto’s bodies are not elongated but generally proportional and detailed. 

(For more on this work, see here.)

Giotto (c. 1267-1337) was a Florentine painter of the late medieval/early Renaissance periods whom some call the “Father of European Art.” The Scrovegni Chapel contains a series of frescoes of the lives of Christ and of Mary. Padua and Florence were the key venues of his work. The degree of his contributions to religious art in the shrines of Assisi is disputed.

(If you live in those states where this Sunday is the Seventh Sunday of Easter, the First Reading reports on the return of the Apostles from the Ascension to Jerusalem, making their way with Mary and “some women” to the Upper Room to await the Holy Spirit, according to Christ’s instructions. Eleven Apostles are named: Matthias is chosen later to replace Judas. The Gospel is part of Christ’s High Priestly Prayer in John 17 at the Last Supper, where he speaks of going to the Father as an act of his Glory. Christ’s Glory is his Cross and his Ascension. Artistic depictions of the more abstract Gospel are hard to find, but so are works related to the First Reading. Depictions of the Apostles in the Upper Room with Mary are usually Pentecostal: rarely do we see them all waiting for the Spirit. Orthodox depictions of the Apostles tend to add Paul, which would be historically inaccurate at Pentecost, since he still doesn’t like Christians.)