He tells them of the promised Holy Spirit, and that it is coming, but only if they stick around in Jerusalem. And then a question comes seemingly out of left field: "Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?" In retrospect, somebody really seems to be not getting it. Jesus, the paragon of patience, simply tells them that it will come eventually, and that in the meantime they will receive power from the Holy Spirit. This sounds like a dad who, when his children ask about going to Disneyland, says "we'll see" and then immediately pulls the car into the nearest Dairy Queen. (Actually, this is not fair insofar as the pouring out of the Spirit and the restoration of Israel are much more connected than that in the eschatological thinking of Second Temple Judaism, but that comes later.)
And then Jesus ascends. Basically he floats away into the clouds. This is like a dad who buys his kids ice cream and then spontaneously combusts.
Already I'm going to get in trouble, because this passage raises questions for me that only feed my skepticism. For one, where did Jesus go? Some of the Greeks postulated a round Earth and even calculated its circumference with rather astonishing accuracy, but in Luke's corner of the world people most likely saw the earth as flat, with the heavenly host dwelling just on the other side of all that blue stuff. It makes sense, if you were going to tell a story of ascension, that the whole upward trajectory thing would be the ticket. But if God were to literally whisk Jesus away in some fashion, why go through the trouble of making it look like Jesus was headed to an over yonder that we now know doesn't exist as such? It makes more sense as a story than an event.
Even if God executed this operation in real time, however, the question remains: why? Why did Jesus ascend? More to the literary point, why tell stories of Jesus' ascension? Why claim that this is what happened? The easy, conservative answer is the one Mallory gave about climbing Everest: "because it's there." In other words, the story was told because it happened. This answer has the benefit of being both simple and obvious. I can't say that it couldn't have happened, and I'm not interested in saying it didn't. But -- Occam's Razor notwithstanding -- I think are at least two other reasons.
For the first reason, imagine I'm a Jewish man in Jerusalem somewhere in the early 30's CE, hanging out in the agora. Let's assume they have some sort of patio furniture. I'm drinking the first-century equivalent of a double redeye (two shots of espresso in a cup of black coffee). Perhaps I'm smoking the first-century equivalent of a Chesterfield, because when I put myself in stories I like to be smoking Chesterfields. And an enthusiastic young Jew approaches me and tells me the promised Messiah has come to us.
I've seen would-be Messiahs come and go, so I'm not immediately impressed. "This is good news," I say coolly as I take a drag of my Chesterfield. "So where is this Messiah, and when is the coronation?" The Messiah -- the Anointed One -- would be king, of course. That's what "Anointed One" would mean, and the word I used for "good news" would, at least in the Greek, have been used to describe the announcement of a new king. We are, in short, talking politics.
My bubbly conversation partner tells me that this new king was executed by the state, a fate not uncommon to insurrectionists and rabble-rousers. "It seems difficult," I suggest dryly, taking a sip of my double redeye, "to lead Israel to renewed greatness when you're dead."
True, this bearer of glad tidings concedes -- but he is risen! He stands there, beaming. I raise an eyebrow: I'm familiar with stories of resurrection, of death and rebirth, of the non-finality of death. It strikes me as odd in a Jewish context -- I'm more of a Sadducee -- but then I remember Judas Maccabeus and his cohorts who, when facing a certain and gruesome death, seemed to earnestly believe not only in the restoration of Israel (described by the prophet Ezekiel as a dry bones putting on flesh) but in their own, personal resurrection. Very interesting.
But now I'm a bit flummoxed by my effervescent interlocutor, because it seems he's evaded my original question: "Where," I say, trying to French inhale and failing miserably, "is this new king against whom the armies of Caesar are powerless -- this Messiah, whom death cannot defeat and the grave cannot keep?"
"He ascended!" comes the exuberant reply.
"Of course he did," I say, stubbing out my Chesterfield and draining the dark, bitter dregs of my coffee. "Of course he did."
I wrote that last bit five years ago, and I'm keeping it because it's funny. I might not be quite so cynical now, but if you think in terms of plot elements Jesus must have gone somewhere after the resurrection because he's no longer around. Having him die of old age is anticlimactic and leaves too much time -- too much biography -- to account for. I suppose he could fade away, like Yoda, but that would be more like ascending anyway. Even if God is writing this story in human history, these things have to be organized in such as way as to be coherent. Moreover, it's not like the idea of ascension, as an element in political propaganda, wasn't in the air at the time anyway, which brings me to my second reason: ascension is linked to resurrection as a claim of Christ's victory over the powers.
These are tropes available in the religious language of Second Temple Judaism. They might be more -- as C.S. Lewis argued, it may be that God was doing literally in Jesus things that we might otherwise consider myth -- but they're at least that. Whatever "really" happened to Jesus [if there is such a thing], this is the way it got narrated. Paul tells us in Colossians 2 that Jesus triumphs over the "rulers and authorities" in the Cross. The Cross is both victory and coronation. Christ's being raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father speak to his vindication, but they also validate the way of the Cross. The Resurrection and Ascension are not God's "just kidding!" to the Cross, but God's deep and abiding cosmic "yes" to cruciformity.
Folks like Crossan argue that neither uniqueness (on the Christian side) nor impossibility (on the skeptical side) were available arguments at the time in regards to these kinds of spectacular claims. Others, like N.T. Wright, argue that this is overplayed, that something had to have happened in early first-century Palestine or the Christian story never would have gotten off the ground. I confess I hedge my bets: the only "something" I can be sure "happened" is that the Christian story did get off the ground. That's enough for me.
It's possible that at the point of origin of these stories the question of literality or historicity is not even appropriate. It's possible that the equation of truth and factuality we tend to take for granted was not on the cognitive map of the early Christians, not because they were intellectual pygmies but because they lived, as I said in the last post, in a different world. We cannot pretend that we live in theirs (the usual fundamentalist assumption) any more than we can assume they live in ours (which is the classic liberal approach).
I'm also willing to say that maybe there's a difference between being honest and telling the truth. Rehearsing my skepticism, as I have done here, is honest. This is what I really think. Proclaiming Jesus as Lord, on the other hand, is telling the truth. The orthodox proclamation is that he is risen, and I can you look you in the eye and offer the liturgical response: he is risen indeed. I may have trouble with the details, but I'm doubling down on that cosmic "yes."
So Jesus ascended. What this means is that we can have confidence in the way of the Cross. It means that Jesus is a king, if a bit of an odd one, and he claims our allegiance. Caesar? Well, Caesar is just an emperor. The real power is somewhere else, and might look different than any of us -- not least the disciples -- would have guessed.
It looks like a cross.