What Are You Looking At?

The Kingdom of God has come in Jesus. It cannot be stopped. It cannot be defeated. Death has been dealt a mortal blow.

Veronese, “The Ascension (detail),” 1585
Veronese, “The Ascension (detail),” 1585 (photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

We know that, at a certain point after the Resurrection, Jesus stopped appearing to his disciples. But the most detailed description of that “last” appearance — the Ascension — comes not from the Gospels but the Acts of the Apostles.

Matthew doesn’t even mention it. After discussing the Resurrection and how the tomb guards were bribed to claim Jesus’ Body was stolen by his followers, Matthew mentions only one event of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances: His meeting with the Apostles in Galilee to give them the Great Commission, “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you” and assuring them he would remain with them “until the end of the world” (Matthew 28:16-20). The end.

Mark’s Gospel poses problems for some people, because of where its last chapter (16) ends. The oldest manuscripts of the Gospel end at verse 8, where Mary, Mary and Salome, having encountered the “young man” at the tomb who tells them Jesus is risen, go off frightened, saying “nothing to anyone.” Some scholars think verses 9-20 were an early but still later addition; that text has always been acknowledged by the Church as part of the canonical Gospel of Mark and were defined as such at the Council of Trent. This “Longer Ending” includes a repeat of Matthew’s Great Commission along with various “signs [that] will accompany those who believe” (verse 17), after saying which Jesus “was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God” (verse 19) while the Apostles went out, in obedience to that Commission, to proclaim him.

Luke briefly mentions that Jesus blesses the Apostles and “was taken up to heaven” (verse 51), after which the Apostles go back to Jerusalem and praise God in the Temple. The Gospel is brief because it is part one of Luke’s two-part work (the other being the Acts of the Apostles). Where the Gospel leaves off briefly, Acts (1:1-11, today’s First Reading) picks up in greater detail.

John concludes with Jesus teaching his Apostles and “doing many other things as well” that the author admits are not recorded there (21:25; see also 20:30). That Jesus was leaving is only obliquely suggested in the account of Jesus’ forgiveness and reinstatement of Peter (“feed my lambs”), where Jesus speaks of his “return” (21:22-23). There is, however, no explicit Ascension account.

Luke’s Acts tells us that Jesus definitively ceased appearing to his Apostles 40 days after his Resurrection (1:3). 

What happens after Jesus’ death is sometimes confusing because, with his death Jesus conquers sin and its consequence, death (1 Corinthians 15:26). When Jesus bows his head on the cross, eternity rushed headlong into history. Space and time are consequences of our earthbound, temporal situation. Jesus as “first fruits” is now “beyond all that.” That’s why, for example, Jesus enters the Upper Room “despite the locked doors,” and how he simply appears in different places: to Mary Magdalene, to the Emmaus-bound disciples, to the Apostles in the Upper Room, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. 

Even more importantly, Jesus’ victory is definitive and irreversible: Good, not evil, will absolutely have the final word in human history. That’s why the effects of Jesus’ victory are practically instantaneous. Even before his own Resurrection, Matthew (27:52) reports how as soon as Jesus died “the tombs were opened and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised” — proof that Jesus had already torn down the “one way” sign on the road to the cemetery. This is the work of the Holy Spirit set loose on the world 53 days before Pentecost.

On Easter Sunday night, Jesus tells his Apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). On Easter Sunday morning, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to hold on to him “because I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17). So, what we time-bound creatures nicely arrange into chronological packets — Resurrection Day 1, Ascension Day 40, Sending of Holy Spirit Day 50 — is already underway.

Those particular moments may reflect definitive and full moments — Jesus’ “Last Farewell,” the absolute gift of the Holy Spirit — but the process is clearly in train. That’s also why we speak of the days in Eastertide as days of, not days after Easter. We live in the history of Easter. What’s important has happened and continues, like yeast, to permeate time. There is no going back.

That’s what the Church means when it speaks of the times in which we live as “already but not yet.” The Kingdom of God has come in Jesus. It cannot be stopped. It cannot be defeated. Death has been dealt a mortal blow.

But we know that the sin and evil continue to put up a fight, trying to stop their final defeat. Death, like a dying wild animal, can still do damage. The point is what the Paschal hymn proclaims: “the strife is over, the battle is won!” 

And, on the 40th day of Easter, Jesus says “farewell” to his disciples, assuring them he remains with them “always, until the end of the world” — not perhaps in the same visible way they were used to, but still. They remain, after all, branches of that vine that is the Mystical Body of Christ. He even remains to them visibly in the Eucharist: as a priest-friend once pointed out, the reason Jesus “disappears” on Easter night at Emmaus is not because he’s gone away but because, having “recognized him in the breaking of the bread,” they had all that they needed (Luke 24:31, 34).

Jesus’ Ascension has been depicted in most Christian art through the ages, and Joynel Fernandes’s quick summary of some of the major ways that’s happened can be found here. My choice for today’s representation of the Ascension is by 16th-century Venetian Renaissance painter, Paolo Veronese.

Fernandes points out that Christian Ascension art typically “depicted the episode in two zones: the earthly and the divine. While in the spiritual sphere Christ is portrayed ascending into heaven, the main characters in the terrestrial sphere included the disciples, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of course the angels” (emphasis added).

On the one hand, the Ascension seems to have to depict both realms, because Jesus is “departing” one and “returning” to the other. But how much of the heavenly realm is represented has varied, because the place of the Holy One is not the place for the eye of man and, besides, since Jesus “goes to prepare a place for us” (John 14:3) then “eye has not seen … what great things God has prepared” (1 Corinthians 2:9). 

In light of what I’ve written above, it’s good that we try to “depict” (knowing our limitations) both the earthly and heavenly realms in Ascension art because that is exactly the ethos of Eastertide: eternity has broken into time. The marriage of earth and heaven found in the Incarnation has now inaugurated the final transformation of this world, groaning in its birth pangs (Romans 8:18-24) and a real, living, fleshy human body stands in heaven (now, actually two). The Ascension shows us that the “veil” has been torn and not just in the sanctuary (Matthew 27:51). 

Veronese shows that torn curtain between two realms in his painting. Veronese’s work is a painting, but it does have something in common with the perspective of trompe l’oeil (“trick of the eye”) ceiling paintings, which seek to give a 3-D perspective to a 2-D canvas. (That technique will be particularly beloved in the Baroque: in my view, the Assam Brothers in Bavaria excelled at it.) Jesus appears to be moving up, up, and away, into the distance. The tiny heads all around Jesus (who is smaller than the disciples he has just bid farewell to) make both a theological statement (heaven as the angelic realm, full of a “cloud of witnesses” — Hebrews 12:1) as well as an artistic one (their tininess reinforces the illusion of distance). 

In keeping with Renaissance art, there is balance: light emanating from heaven and illuminating the earth (note the rays), the splashes of color (red, yellow) on two apostles (Peter in gold and blue?) to brighten this “vale of tears.” Jesus and Peter (if it is Peter, his Vicar) provide the line of a kind of twisting bodily symmetry. The “clouds” (which are normally the sign of the Divine Realm and Presence — consider it was a Pillar of Cloud that followed Israel in the daytime during the Exodus — 13:20-22) form the threshold of heaven and eventually “take him from their sight” (Acts 1:9). One angel leaning down from heaven (the one who asks, “hey, folks, why are you looking up into the heavens?”) bridges the two realms and completes the optical transition.

What strikes me most about the painting is, however, that most of the people on the earthly side are looking up. We could explain that simply by saying it’s the posture we’d expect for the angel to query the “Men of Galilee” why they were gazing heavenward. But I want to suggest something more. 

Jesus has torn the veil. The God who “lives in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16) upon whose face to look would mean death (Exodus 33:20) has come intimately close in Jesus Christ. The God-man who tells us to “be not afraid!” (Matthew 28:10; see also Luke 1:30, 2:10, 5:10; Mark 16:6; John 6:20) invites us to focus on God not in fear but as the Mysterium fascinans. 11 weeks ago, when we examined Carracci’s “Transfiguration,” Peter, James and John are trying as much to avert their eyes as to look at their Transfigured Lord. In Veronese’s painting, however, we even have an Apostle scaling a tree like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:3-4) to make sure he gets a good look at “beauty ever ancient, ever new.”

Jesus’ Eyes, of course, look to his Father — unseen in the painting, but not necessarily, because, as Jesus reminded Philip, “he who sees me sees the one who sent me” (John 14:9). Which all the reason why we are reminded: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).

Veronese, “The Ascension,” 1585
Veronese, “The Ascension,” 1585