According to the Bible, the Ascension of Jesus (anglicized from the Vulgate Latin Acts 1:9-11 section title: Ascensio Iesu) is the departure of Christ from Earth into the presence of God. The narrative in Acts 1 takes place 40 days after the Resurrection: Jesus, in the company of the disciples, is taken up in their sight after warning them to remain in Jerusalem until the coming of the Holy Spirit; as he ascends a cloud hides him from their view, and two men in white appear to tell them that he will return "in the same way you have seen him go into heaven."
Stories of Heavenly ascents were fairly common in the time of Jesus, signifying divine approval or the deification of an exceptional man. In the Christian tradition, reflected in the major Christian creeds and confessional statements, the ascension is connected with the exaltation of Jesus, meaning that through his ascension Jesus took his seat at the right hand of God: "He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty." The Feast of the Ascension is celebrated on the 40th day of Easter, always a Thursday; the Orthodox tradition has a different calendar up to a month later than in the Western tradition, and while the Anglican communion continues to observe the feast, most Protestant churches have abandoned it. The Ascension of Jesus is an important theme in Christian art, the ascending Jesus often shown blessing an earthly group below him to signify his blessing the entire Church.
The world of the Ascension is a three-part universe with the heavens above, a flat earth centered on Jerusalem in the middle, and the underworld below. Heaven was separated from the earth by the firmament, the visible sky, a solid inverted bowl where God's throne sat "on the vaulted roof of earth."(Isaiah 40:22). Humans looking up from earth saw the floor of heaven, made of clear blue lapis-lazuli (Exodus 24:9-10), as was God's throne (Ezekiel 1:26).
Stories of heavenly ascents were fairly common in the time of Jesus, signifying the means whereby a prophet could attain access to divine secrets, or divine approval granted to an exceptionally righteous individual, or the deification of an exceptional man. Figures familiar to Jews would have included Enoch (from the Book of Genesis and a popular non-Biblical work called 1 Enoch); the 5th century sage Ezra; Baruch the companion of the prophet Jeremiah (from a work called 2 Baruch, in which Baruch is promised he will ascend to heaven after 40 days); Levi the ancestor of priests; the Teacher of Righteousness from the Qumran community; the prophet Elijah (from 2 Kings); Moses, who was deified on entering heaven; and the children of Job, who according to the Testament of Job ascended heaven following their resurrection from the dead. Non-Jewish readers would have been familiar with the case of the emperor Augustus, whose ascent was witnessed by Senators; Romulus the founder of Rome, who, like Jesus, was taken to heaven in a cloud; the Greek hero Heracles (Hercules); and others.
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There is a broad consensus among scholars that the brief Ascension account in the Gospel of Mark is a later addition to the original version of that gospel. Luke–Acts, a single work from the same anonymous author, provides the only detailed account of the Ascension. Luke 24 tells how Jesus leads the eleven disciples to Bethany, a village on the Mount of Olives not far from Jerusalem, where he instructs them to remain in Jerusalem until the coming of the Holy Spirit and blesses them. "And it came to pass, 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."
Acts 1 describes a meal on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus commands the disciples to await the coming of the Holy Spirit, a cloud takes him upward from sight, and two men in white appear to tell them (the disciples) that he will return "in the same way you have seen him go into heaven." Luke and Acts appear to describe the same event, but present quite different chronologies, Luke placing it on the same day as the Resurrection and Acts forty days afterwards; various proposals have been put forward to resolve the contradiction, but the question remains open.
The Gospel of John has three references to ascension in Jesus' own words: "No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the son of man" (John 3:13); "What if you (the disciples) were to see the son of man ascending where he was before?" (John 6:62); and to Mary Magdalene after his Resurrection, "Do not hold me, for I not yet ascended to my father..." (John 20:17). In the first and second Jesus is claiming to be the apocalyptic "one like a son of man" of Daniel 7; the last has mystified commentators – why should Mary be prohibited from touching the risen but not yet ascended Christ, while Thomas is later invited to do so?
Various epistles (Romans 8:34, Ephesians 1:19-20, Colossians 3:1, Philippians 2:9-11, 1 Timothy 3:16, and 1 Peter 3:21-22) also refer to an Ascension, seeming, like Luke-Acts and John, to equate it with the post-resurrection "exaltation" of Jesus to the right hand of God.
The common thread linking all the New Testament Ascension references, reflected in the major Christian creeds and confessional statements, is the exaltation of Jesus, meaning that through his ascension Jesus took his seat at the right hand of God in Heaven: "He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty." It is interpreted more broadly as the culmination of the Mystery of the Incarnation, marking the completion of Jesus' physical presence among his apostles and consummating the union of God and man, as expressed in the Second Helvetic Confession:
Some contemporary theologians view the Ascension as an embarrassing remnant of an outmoded cosmology. Rudolf Bultmann suggested that "We no longer believe in the three-storied universe which the creeds take for granted... No one who is old enough to think for himself supposes that God lives in a local heaven ... And if this is so, the story of Christ's ... ascension into heaven is done with." Modern theologians like J.I. Packer have therefore de-mythologised a heaven in which God sits enthroned above Jerusalem for one which is "the endless, self-sustaining life of God," and consider the Ascension to be "an emblem in space and time of God's eternal life."
The Feast of the Ascension is one of the ecumenical (i.e., universally celebrated) feasts of the Christian liturgical year, along with the Passion, Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas. Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on the sixth Thursday after Easter Sunday, the fortieth day from Easter day, although some Roman Catholic provinces have moved the observance to the following Sunday to facilitate the obligation to attend Mass. Saint Jerome held that it was of Apostolic origin, but in fact the Ascension was originally part of Pentecost (the coming of the Holy Spirit), and developed as a separate celebration only slowly from the late 4th century onward. In the Catholic tradition it begins with a three-day "rogation" to ask for God's mercy, and the feast itself includes a procession of torches and banners symbolising Christ's journey to the Mount of Olives and entry into heaven, the extinguishing of the Paschal candle, and an all-night vigil; white is the liturgical colour. The orthodox tradition has a slightly different calendar up to a month later than in the Western tradition; the Anglican communion continues to observe the feast, but most Protestant churches have abandoned the traditional Christian calendar of feasts.
The Ascension has been a frequent subject in Christian art. By the 6th century the iconography of the Ascension had been established and by the 9th century Ascension scenes were being depicted on domes of churches. The Rabbula Gospels (c. 586) include some of the earliest images of the Ascension. Many ascension scenes have two parts, an upper (Heavenly) part and a lower (earthly) part. The ascending Christ may be carrying a resurrection banner or make a sign of benediction with his right hand. The blessing gesture by Christ with his right hand is directed towards the earthly group below him and signifies that he is blessing the entire Church. In the left hand, he may be holding a Gospel or a scroll, signifying teaching and preaching.
The Eastern Orthodox portrayal of the Ascension is a major metaphor for the mystical nature of the Church. In many Eastern icons the Virgin Mary is placed at the center of the scene in the earthly part of the depiction, with her hands raised towards Heaven, often accompanied by various Apostles. The upwards-looking depiction of the earthly group matches the Eastern liturgy on the Feast of the Ascension: "Come, let us rise and turn our eyes and thoughts high ..."
The traditional site of the Ascension is Mount Olivet (the "Mount of Olives"), on which the village of Bethany sits. Before the conversion of Constantine in 312 AD, early Christians honored the Ascension of Christ in a cave on the Mount, and by 384 the Ascension was venerated on the present site, uphill from the cave.
Around the year 390 a wealthy Roman woman named Poimenia financed construction of the original church called "Eleona Basilica" (elaion in Greek means "olive garden", from elaia "olive tree," and has an oft-mentioned similarity to eleos meaning "mercy"). This church was destroyed by Sassanid Persians in 614. It was subsequently rebuilt, destroyed, and rebuilt again by the Crusaders. This final church was later destroyed by Muslims, leaving only a 12x12 meter octagonal structure (called a martyrium—"memorial"—or "Edicule") that remains to this day. The site was ultimately acquired by two emissaries of Saladin in the year 1198 and has remained in the possession of the Islamic Waqf of Jerusalem ever since.
The Chapel of the Ascension today is a Christian and Muslim holy site now believed to mark the place where Jesus ascended into heaven; in the small round church/mosque is a stone imprinted with the footprints of Jesus. The Russian Orthodox Church also maintains a Convent of the Ascension on the top of the Mount of Olives.
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