He Makes the Clouds His Chariot

Preaching the Ascension of Jesus Christ

Forty days after his Passion, Jesus was lifted up and taken from his apostles’ sight by a cloud (Acts 1:9). While the apostles were gazing into the sky, two white-robed men appeared and told them that Jesus had been taken up into heaven (1:10–11). Many thoughts and questions must have been racing through the apostles’ minds as they experienced this mysterious event. They may have recalled Psalms 68 and 104, which describe God as riding upon the clouds as upon a chariot (68:4; 104:3). They may have thought of the other great ascension event in the Sacred Scriptures — that of Elijah, who is taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kgs 2:11–12). Perhaps they asked themselves what Jesus’ physical absence meant in light of his promise to remain with them always (Mt 28:20). Jesus’ ascent into heaven may also generate questions in the mind of the modern reader. With the advent of the telescope and space travel, we may wonder exactly how Jesus got to heaven after he was enveloped by the cloud. We may also ask what Jesus’ existence is like in heaven, in this current age between the Ascension and the Parousia.

In this essay, I will seek to address the many issues that surround the Ascension. First, I will examine its place in the Lucan narrative and its typological relationship to several passages in the Old Testament. I will then attempt to interpret the rich symbolism of the Ascension, as well as its significance in the life of the Christian believer. That which follows will be a consideration of the Ascension in relation to Jesus’ exercise of the offices of kingship and priesthood. I will conclude with a discussion of how the Ascension foreshadows the Parousia.

First, the place of the Ascension in the Lucan narrative: The Ascension forms what is known in biblical studies as an inclusio. An inclusio may be thought of as a textual frame that is formed by a set of similar passages at the beginning and end of a narrative.

Jesus’ promise to clothe the apostles with “the power from on high” (Lk 24:49), for example, corresponds to the Annunciation scene at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. In this scene, the angel tells Mary that she will be overshadowed by “the power of the Most High” (Lk 1:35).1 This correspondence between the Ascension and the Annunciation expresses a profound theological truth that is both ecclesiological and christological: although Jesus will be physically taken away from his disciples in the Ascension, he will be re-incarnated in his Church, which, like Mary, will be overshadowed and rendered fruitful by the Holy Spirit. We will see this theological truth further developed in the second volume of Luke’s narrative, the Book of Acts, in which Jesus reveals to Saul of Tarsus that any attack against the Church is a direct attack against Jesus’ very person (9:1–9).

Another inclusio is formed by the priestly blessing that Jesus gives to his apostles before his ascent (Lk 24:50–51). This priestly blessing recalls that which the priest Simeon gave to Mary and Joseph when they had presented Jesus in the Temple (Lk 2:34).2 Jesus’ priestly blessing may also be thought of as supplying “for the missing blessing of the speechless Zechariah” at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel (1:22).3 The people are described as waiting for Zechariah outside the Temple; it could be that Luke is inviting the reader to participate in this waiting, which is finally brought to an end with Jesus’ priestly blessing at the close of the Gospel.

The Ascension also serves as a hinge between the two volumes of Luke’s narrative. Having shown that both the Old Testament prophecies and Jesus’ prophecies about himself have been fulfilled, Luke relates Jesus’ prophecy about events to come in the lives of his apostles.4 The Ascension is also the point before which the Lucan narrative radiates outward from Jerusalem with the apostles’ missionary journeys throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.5 One may visualize the dynamic of the Lucan narrative as a sort of contraction followed by a radiation. In the Gospel the action moves toward Jerusalem, culminating in the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus; this contraction is followed by a powerful radiation outward from Jerusalem, as the apostles, empowered by the Holy Spirit, carry the Gospel to the ends of the known world. The events of the Ascension and Pentecost are the two hinges marking the end of the contraction and the beginning of the radiation.

Several typological associations may be made between the Ascension and passages in the Old Testament. First, there is the connection to Abraham. Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit is interpreted in the Lucan narrative as a fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham and the blessing that the patriarch had received from God. Speaking in Solomon’s Portico, Peter tells the people that the Abrahamic covenant has been fulfilled in Jesus (Acts 3:25; see also Acts 2:39; 13:32; 26:6). For Luke, the promise to Abraham is not primarily one of temporal blessings but of spiritual blessings, the highest of which is the indwelling of God’s very Spirit.6

That the Ascension occurs forty days after the Passion of Jesus is also relevant to any typological discussion. The number forty is associated with the prophets Moses and Elijah, who each spend forty days on Mount Sinai/Horeb and, in the case of the former, forty years in the desert.7 Strengthening this connection to Moses and Elijah is the appearance of the two men at the Ascension, who, like Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration, are described as wearing white robes.8 Perhaps Luke is here signaling to the reader that there is a connection between the Ascension, the Transfiguration, and these two prophets.

First, let us consider Moses. In Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, the text reads that Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus about “his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31). The Greek word for “departure” used here is exodos, with its obvious Mosaic connotation.9 So, if we are to interpret the forty days between the Passion and the Ascension as an allusion to the Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the desert, this leads to an interpretation of the Passion as a fulfillment of the Red Sea crossing and the Ascension as a fulfillment of the entry into the Promised Land. Moreover, before Jesus ascends into heaven, he promises to send his Spirit to the apostles (Lk 24:49–51). There is a similar spirit-transmission from Moses to Joshua, which is carried out by means of Moses laying his hands on his successor (Deut 34:9).10 Like Joshua, the apostles are commissioned to continue the work of their Master; in the case of the apostles, the conquest that they have been commissioned to carry out will be a spiritual one, accomplished through the working of miracles and the preaching of the Gospel.

And now, the typological connections to Elijah: In the Second Book of Kings, Elisha asks Elijah for a double portion of his prophetic spirit, before the latter is taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire (2:9). While ascending, Elijah lets fall from him his mantle, which is imbued with his prophetic spirit (2 Kgs 2:14–22). In the Lucan text, Jesus uses the phrase “clothed with power from on high” to describe what will happen to the apostles when he sends the Holy Spirit. This word choice suggests a symbolic link between the Ascension of Jesus and the succession narrative of Elijah and Elisha. As Elisha is commissioned and empowered to continue the prophetic mission of Elijah, so are the apostles commissioned by Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue his saving work on earth.11 While Elisha is clothed with Elijah’s mantle, the apostles are clothed with the Holy Spirit, who guides them in their prophetic mission to the nations.

Luke’s accounts of the Ascension are rich in symbolic imagery. There is the spatial image of Jesus’ “going up” into heaven, which may generate questions in the mind of the modern reader. We have, after all, sent astronauts to the moon and peered into the deepest recesses of the visible universe through high-powered telescopes, and we have yet to discover any sign of the heaven into which Jesus is said to have ascended. So, what exactly happened to Jesus’ glorified body when he was taken out of the apostles’ sight by the cloud? In other words, what transpired between Jesus’ concealment by the cloud and his entry into heaven? In order to address these questions, we must first explore a more fundamental one: Where is heaven?

In the Sacred Scriptures, the word “heaven” has a threefold meaning: first, it can denote what is meant by the word “sky” (i.e., the region populated by birds and clouds); second, it can denote what is meant by the term “outer space”; third, it can denote what is commonly meant by the word “heaven,” which, at least in English, refers to the abode of the angels and saints who dwell in the immediate presence of God.12 While the spatial relationship between the first and second heavens is quite straightforward, that of the third heaven to the other two is not as clear. One possibility is that the third heaven is beyond outer space in the same way that outer space is beyond the sky. Another possibility is that the third heaven overlaps with the first and second, while also transcending them (in modern terms we might say that the third heaven exists in a dimension that is parallel to this one).

Although the Catholic Church has not made any definitive decision regarding this issue,13 I tend to favor the second view. If this view were indeed correct, then the scriptural references to “up” and “down” with respect to heaven and hell would be purely symbolic. To illustrate this point, the astrophysicist Hugh Ross uses the analogy of a computer screen world inhabited by “screen people.” For the screen person, anything beyond the two dimensions of length and width would be referred to as either “up” or “down” and lie beyond his sense experience and imagination.14 Moreover, the screen person would not be able to travel to this third dimension, no matter how far he went in any direction in his two-dimensional screen world. The only way that a screen person would be able to travel to the third dimension would be through some form of interdimensional teleportation, which, in my opinion, is the best way that we can describe how Jesus went from being in the cloud to being in heaven.

Another symbolic image in the Ascension accounts is that of the cloud. In Luke’s Gospel we read that Jesus is “carried up into heaven” (Lk 24:51). What this “carrying up” looked like is described in more detail in Acts, where Luke says that “a cloud took [Jesus] out of [the apostles’] sight” (v. 9). According to Timothy Johnson, the Greek verb hypolambanō (“take up”) implies that the cloud is being described as the vehicle of ascent.15 The image of a cloud-vehicle is not unique to Luke. The two witnesses of Revelation 11 are also taken up to heaven in a cloud after their battle with the beast from the abyss (v. 12). We also see instances of this cloud-vehicle motif throughout the Old Testament. In the Book of Exodus, for example, the Lord tells Moses that he will come on a cloud when he visits his people (19:9). Later in the narrative, a pillar of cloud descends to the door of the tent of meeting and God speaks with Moses within the tent (Exod 33:9–10; Deut 31:15). In several other Old Testament passages, God is described as riding on the clouds as on a chariot (Ps 68:4; 104:3), such as when he goes to confront the idols of Egypt (Isa 19:1). In light of these Old Testament passages, Luke’s description of Jesus being carried up into heaven in a cloud may be interpreted as an affirmation of his divinity. Those early Christians who were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures would have recognized in the Ascension accounts the figure of he who makes the clouds his chariot, incarnate in the risen Lord.

As Jesus is exalted in his Ascension into heaven, so is the human nature that had been united to him in his Incarnation. According to St. John Chrysostom, our reconciliation with God is perfected by the Ascension.16 St. Leo the Great explains that in the Ascension our nature is exalted to a state higher than all the orders of angels, to the throne of God’s glory.17 This is because, says Theodoret of Cyr, the nature that Jesus assumed partakes of the same honor that he receives, such that human nature becomes a visible medium through which the invisible Godhead is worshipped.18 That Jesus has retained our human nature even in heaven may lead one to wonder whether he is still capable of suffering. According to Roch Kereszty, although Jesus has retained his humanity and even his flesh, “this flesh is of a different kind and no longer susceptible to suffering and death.”19 For Jesus’ Ascension results in “a deification of his body and affections,” and an invulnerability to physical or emotional suffering.20 Jesus’ impassibility does not imply, however, an indifference to those who are suffering on earth; Christ loves those who suffer, albeit, “without himself suffering or being disturbed himself.”21 Kereszty admits that this divine affection is a mystery beyond our experience: “It is mercy without misery, compassion without passion.”22 Although Jesus can only rejoice in heaven, “his love is still greater and more effective than the love of any human on earth.”23 Confronted with such a mystery, I must admit with Kereszty that the love of the ascended Jesus is simply something that is beyond human experience.

Another mysterious aspect of the Ascension is that it produces not an absence but a more profound presence of Jesus in the lives of his disciples. Timothy Johnson writes, “So long as Jesus was physically present, he was available only to those he directly encountered; by the Spirit, he became powerfully present to many through his prophetic successors [the disciples].”24 Perhaps this explains Jesus’ assertion in John 16:7 that his departure is to his disciples’ advantage. In his Sermo de Ascensione Domini, St. Augustine of Hippo draws a parallel between the Incarnation and the Ascension in order to show that the latter does not result in Jesus’ absence from earth. Augustine explains that when Jesus came down to earth he did not leave heaven, as he continued to experience uninterruptedly the beatific vision. Similarly, when Jesus returned to heaven he did not withdraw from us, for he remains with those who love him through the indwelling of his Spirit, as he declares in John 14:23: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” It is in this sense, teaches Augustine, that it can be said that Jesus remains with us on earth and that we can be with him in heaven.25

According to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, this loving, spiritual union with the Lord is a fruit of his Ascension and a higher form of love than that which even the apostles were capable of experiencing while Jesus was on earth. Bernard teaches that the apostles’ affection for Jesus was “taken up with him into heaven and . . . purified of the limitations of fleshly love.”26 Deprived of the physical presence of Jesus, the apostles received the Holy Spirit, who transformed their all-too-human love for Jesus into a love that is spiritual.27 For Bernard, the Ascension achieves the ultimate goal of God’s love, which is the union of the highest with the lowest. Taken together, the Ascension and Pentecost consummate the union of heaven and earth: human nature has been taken up and deified in the ascended Lord, and the divine nature has been sent down to earth in the Holy Spirit, to sanctify God’s people.28

In his dialogue with Pontius Pilate in the eighteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus affirms that he is indeed a king. Jesus explains to Pilate, however, that his kingship is not of this world (v. 36). If Jesus’ kingship is not of this world, then one would expect his enthronement to have taken place in a realm beyond this one, which is what we see in the Lucan texts. Jesus’ Ascension hearkens back to Psalm 110, in which God invites a priest-king figure to sit at his right hand. Peter makes this connection even more explicit in his Pentecost speech in the second chapter of Acts. He identifies the priest-king of Psalm 110 as Jesus, who has been “raised up” and “exalted at the right hand of God” (Acts 2:32–36). Peter rejects the interpretation of Psalm 110 which posits that the priest-king is David, for “David did not ascend into the heavens” (v. 34). This priest-king must be Jesus, argues Peter, for David himself refers to him as his “lord.” This argument is identical to that employed by Jesus in one of his debates with the Pharisees (see Mt 22:41–46). Paul also alludes to Psalm 110 in his Letter to the Ephesians, a passage from which is one of the optional readings in the Lectionary for the solemnity of the Ascension (Eph 1:17–30). Paul describes God as making Jesus sit at his right hand in heaven and putting all things under his feet (vv. 20–22). This imagery is identical to that of Psalm 110:1.29

The ascended Lord not only sits as king at God’s right hand; he also serves as priest in the heavenly temple. Verses from the ninth and tenth chapters of the Letter to the Hebrews comprise the other optional reading in the Lectionary for the solemnity of the Ascension (9:24–28; 10:19–23). While the reading from Ephesians focuses on Jesus’ heavenly kingship, the reading from Hebrews focuses on his priestly ministry in the heavenly temple. To the question Why was Christ taken up into heaven?, St. Thomas Aquinas answers, “That he may appear now in the presence of God for us.”30 Commenting on Hebrews 9 and 10, Thomas interprets the Ascension as Jesus’ entry into the heavenly temple where he fulfills that which was foreshadowed by the figure of the Old Testament high priest. In the Old Law, says Thomas, the high priest entered the holy of holies to pray on behalf of the people; Jesus likewise enters heaven to stand in the immediate presence of God the Father, in order to intercede for those whom he redeemed by his own blood.31 Thomas also sees in the Temple curtain a prefigurement of Jesus. Interpreting Hebrews 10:19–20, Thomas writes that it is Jesus’ flesh that is the Temple curtain of the New Covenant. During Jesus’ earthly life his flesh veiled his divinity, just as the curtain of the Jerusalem Temple veiled the glory-presence of God in the holy of holies; and now that Jesus has entered the heavenly sanctuary, we can enter the presence of God through the curtain of his flesh, which is offered to us in the Blessed Sacrament.32

To conclude, I will discuss how the Ascension foreshadows the Parousia. After Jesus disappears from the apostles’ sight in the cloud, two white-robed men appear and tell the onlookers that Jesus will return in the same way that he went up to heaven (Acts 1:11). Earlier in the Lucan narrative, Jesus prophesies that those who are alive during the last days will see him “coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27). In this verse, Jesus refers to himself by the title “Son of Man,” which is a reference to the Book of Daniel. In the seventh chapter of Daniel, the prophet relates an apocalyptic vision that he experienced of “one like a son of man” who comes “with the clouds of heaven” (v. 13).33

So, the matter of how Jesus will return is made quite clear by Luke’s Ascension accounts and the related passages; but there remains the far more tantalizing question of when Jesus will return. Elsewhere in the Gospel narratives, Jesus tells his apostles that the exact timing of the Eschaton is known neither by the angels nor by himself, but only by God the Father (Mt 24:36; Mk 13:32). In Luke’s second Ascension account, however, Jesus’ response to the apostles’ question differs slightly. When the apostles ask him whether the time of the eschatological restoration had arrived, Jesus replies, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). Here, unlike in the above-mentioned verses of Matthew and Mark, Jesus does not say that he is ignorant of the timing of the Eschaton, but rather that it is not for the apostles to know. According to St. Bede the Venerable, by this statement Jesus showed the apostles that he knew when the end of days would arrive, since he shares all things (including knowledge) with God the Father; however, Jesus knew that it would not be beneficial for the apostles (or anyone, for that matter) to know the date of the Last Judgment because, not knowing, they would live every day as if they were to be judged the next.34

So, what are we to make of the verses in Matthew and Mark where Jesus says that he does not know the timing of the Eschaton? According to St. Ambrose of Milan, Jesus’ ignorance of this matter in these verses is feigned and not real. Ambrose points out that there are other instances in the Scriptures where God feigns to not know what he does know.35 One such instance is in the third chapter of Genesis, when God asks Adam where he is. God, being omniscient, knows full well where Adam is hiding, but perhaps asks this question in order to put his honesty to the test. Based on such examples of God feigning ignorance in the Scriptures, Ambrose concludes, “as God the Father hides what is known to him, so also [does] the Son, who is the image of God.”36

Jesus’ Ascension plays a key role in the Lucan narrative. It forms a literary frame with passages from the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, such as those describing the annunciations to Zechariah and Mary. It also serves as a hinge between the two volumes of the Lucan narrative, marking a transition from Jesus’ earthly ministry to the Holy Spirit’s activity in the nascent Church. Moreover, events in the lives of such Old Testament figures as Abraham, Moses, and Elijah find their fulfillment in the Ascension, whose rich symbolism lends itself to multiple typological interpretations. The Ascension also has significant implications in the areas of spirituality and Christology, for it shows that although Jesus physically departed from us, he remains present to us through the indwelling of his Spirit, as well as through his heavenly ministry of kingship-priesthood. Finally, the Ascension reveals to us the manner in which Jesus will return at the Last Judgment: riding on the clouds of heaven as on a chariot. The Ascension is a great mystery: it is a departure that yields a more powerful presence, a retreat that signals that the war against sin and death has been won, and the exaltation of human nature to a state above even the highest orders of angels.

  1. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 3, ed. Daniel Harrington (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 403.
  2. Pablo T. Gadenz, The Gospel of Luke, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, eds. Peter S. Williamson, Mary Healy, et al (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018), 403.
  3. Gadenz, The Gospel of Luke.
  4. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 3, ed. Daniel Harrington (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 402–03.
  5. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, 403.
  6. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke.
  7. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 5, ed. Daniel Harrington (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 25.
  8. Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 27.
  9. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, 406.
  10. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke.
  11. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke.
  12. Joseph Hontheim, “Heaven,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 7 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910).
  13. Hontheim, “Heaven,” The Catholic Encyclopedia.
  14. Hugh Ross, Beyond the Cosmos: The Transdimensionality of God (California: Reasons to Believe Press, 2017), c. 16.
  15. Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 27.
  16. Francis Martin and Evan Smith, eds, Hebrews, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, vol. V, ed. Thomas C. Oden (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 5.
  17. Arthur A. Just, Jr., ed, Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, vol. III, ed. Thomas C. Oden (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 393.
  18. Mark J. Edwards, Jr., ed, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, vol. VII, ed. Thomas C. Oden (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 122–23.
  19. Roch A. Kereszty, Jesus Christ: Fundamentals of Christology, ed. J. Stephen Maddux (New York: Alba House, 2002), 485.
  20. Kereszty, Jesus Christ, 487.
  21. Kereszty, Jesus Christ, 487.
  22. Kereszty, Jesus Christ, 487.
  23. Kereszty, Jesus Christ, 487.
  24. Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 30–31.
  25. Augustine of Hippo, Sermo de Ascensione Domini, The Liturgy of the Hours, vol. II, trans. International Commission on English in the Liturgy (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1976).
  26. Kereszty, Jesus Christ, 486.
  27. Kereszty, Jesus Christ, 486.
  28. Kereszty, Jesus Christ, 486–87.
  29. Frank Thielman, Ephesians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, eds. Robert W. Yarbrough and Robert H. Stein (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010), 107–08.
  30. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, trans. Chrysostom Baer (Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2006), 196.
  31. Aquinas, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 196.
  32. Aquinas, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 211.
  33. Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 27.
  34. Francis Martin and Evan Smith, eds., Acts, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, vol. V, ed. Thomas C. Oden (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 8..
  35. Martin and Smith, Acts, 9.
  36. Martin and Smith, Acts, 9.
About Br. Branden J. Gordon

Br. Branden Gordon is originally from Toronto, Canada. After working as a school teacher for a few years, he discerned a call to religious life. He entered formation with the Salesians of Don Bosco in 2013. Br. Gordon is currently in his eighth year of formation and his second year of theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary / Seton Hall University.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this scholarly and illuminating essay! It certainly expanded my understanding of the significance and implications of the Ascension and put it into context within the story of salvation….

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