The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Thursday, May 18, 2023

The Sixth Article – The Ascension

The Apostles’ and Nicene-Constantinopolitan versions of the Christian Creed are in harmony with each other.   Each of the 12 Articles of the Apostles’ Creed is in full substantial agreement with the corresponding Article in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan.   Where the Articles differ in wording, usually the conciliar Creed is longer, using more precise words to give a fuller explanation of the tenet of faith so as to guard against specific heresies.   This Article is the exception.   The wording is almost identical between the two Creeds and were it not for the Greek language’s definite articles, which Latin does not have, and its non-sparing usage of copulas, this Article would have been longer in the Latin text of the Apostles’ Creed than in the Greek text of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan.   That Latin text is ascendit ad caelos, sedet ad dexteram Dei Patris omnipotentis which in the English of our Book of Common Prayer is “He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty”.   The Greek text of the conciliar Creed is καὶ ἀνελθόντα εἰς τοὺς οὐρανούς, καὶ καθεζόμενον ἐκ δεξιῶν τοῦ Πατρός which in our English liturgy is “and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father”.


St. Matthew does not include an account of the Ascension in his Gospel.  He ends the narrative of his Gospel with Jesus speaking to the Apostles on a mountain, commissioning them to go out into all the world, and promising to be with them and by extension the Church, the society of His followers that He is about to establish through them, until the end of the Age.   While this speech does bear some resemblance to the speeches St. Luke and St. Mark record as occurring just prior to the Ascension, the location rules out this being the same event.   The speech that St. Matthew records took place on a mountain in Galilee, not the Mount of Olives in Judea.  St. Mark does record the Ascension in his Gospel including His sitting at the right hand of the Father:


So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God. (Mk. 16: 18) (1)


Immediately before this St. Mark had recorded Jesus sharing a meal with the Apostles in which He spoke the words alluded to at the beginning of the verse.  As mentioned, the words bear a certain resemblance to the speech Jesus had given in Galilee – in both Jesus gives His Apostles a commission, in St. Matthew’s Gospel to make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, in St. Mark’s to go out into all the world and preach the Gospel, in both Jesus attaches promises to the commission, in St. Matthew’s His abiding presence until the end of the Age, in St. Mark’s that they will perform various signs and miracles.  St. Mark does not mention the location of the meal and speech.   For that information we must turn to St. Luke’s account.  


In the Gospel according to St. Luke, as in St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus shares a meal with the Apostles, then gives them instructions regarding their mission to take His message to the world.  St. Luke mentions that the instructions are given as Jesus and the Apostles make their way to Bethany (Lk. 24:50), which is located on the Mount of Olives.   St. Luke goes on to say:


and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them.  And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. (vv. 50-51).


St. Luke provides another account of the Ascension at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to his Gospel.   This account is the fullest and the one from which we get most of the details of the Ascension – that it took place forty days after the Resurrection, that Jesus was taken up from them into the sky and hid from view by a cloud, and the appearance of the heavenly witnesses who told the Apostles as they gazed up where He had disappeared that “this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven” (Acts. 1:11).  


The word heaven is used in more than one sense in the Scriptures.   It can refer to the part of Creation that is spoken of as the “Firmament” in the first chapter of Genesis.  This basically means everything visible to the eye above the earth, the place where the birds fly and the clouds are – what we would call the atmosphere – and the place where the sun, moon, and stars are – what we would call outer space.   Some think that when the Scriptures use heaven in this sense that it can be further broken down into distinctions, some references speaking of heaven strictly as the atmosphere, others speaking of heaven as outer space, with yet others speaking of the entirety of the visible sky.   At any rate, the distinction that is clear in Scripture, is between heaven as the Firmament of Creation, and Heaven as the eternal presence of God outside Creation.   In the narrative accounts of the Ascension, especially St. Luke’s account in the book of Acts, Jesus is seen by the Apostles to ascend into the heaven of Creation.   He rises into the sky and is hidden from view by the clouds.   His ultimate destination in the Ascension, of course, was the Heaven beyond the created heaven, the eternal presence of God.


St. John does not provide a narrative account of the Ascension but he does provide an account of Jesus’ teaching concerning the event.   The Synoptic Evangelists all record the Last Passover Supper Jesus shared with His Apostles on the evening of His betrayal and all record the institution of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on that occasion.   St. John picks up the account of this evening after the institution of the Sacrament and provides an extended account of a discourse Jesus had with His Apostles beginning in the Upper Room and continuing as they made their way to Gethsemane.   In that discourse Jesus makes mention of His being about to return to His Father many times.   He gives a purpose for His return to Heaven – to prepare a place for His disciples, and promises that from there He will come back to receive His disciples unto Himself, thus, like the angels in the first chapter of Acts, connecting His Ascension to His Second Coming, which, as we shall see when we look at the seventh Article, the Creed does as well.   Jesus also relates His Ascension to the coming of the Holy Spirit which took place on Pentecost ten days after His Ascension.   Jesus had to ascend back to the Father for the Father to send the Holy Spirit inaugurating the Church which indwelt by the Spirit of Christ continues His Incarnational Presence on earth until the Second Coming.


The Church, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, is called the Body of Christ in the New Testament and while He continues to be present in and through His Church, in His literal body He is seated at the right hand of God.   St. Mark is the only Evangelist to mention this in his Gospel account of the Ascension.  St. Matthew records a prophecy that Jesus gave to the high priest at His trial that they would see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming in the clouds of glory (26:64) reinforcing the connection between His present post-Ascension location and the Second Coming and St. Luke in the book of Acts records the vision of St. Stephen upon his martyrdom in which he sees Jesus at the right hand of God (7:55).   St. Paul makes frequent mention of Jesus’ being at the right hand of God in his epistles.   To the Romans, he writes that Jesus is making intercession for us at the right hand of God (Rom. 8:34), to the Ephesians, he writes that the same great power of God that raised up Jesus from the dead and seated Him at the right hand of God is now available for us who believe (Eph. 1:19-20).   To the Colossians he writes that those who are united with Christ in His Resurrection, i.e., baptized believers, should seek the things of above, where Jesus sits on the right hand of God (Col 3:1). 


The right hand of God to which Jesus ascended and from which He shall return in His Second Coming is a place and position of authority and power.   It is important that we recognize that when Jesus ascended to the right hand of God He was returning to what had been His place and position all along.   One of the heresies that plagued the Church in the early centuries was Adoptionism, the idea that Jesus started out as just a man and became God at some later point when He was adopted by the Father.  Those teaching this heresy didn’t agree among themselves as to when this was – some said His baptism, others the Resurrection, and still others yet claimed the Ascension.   Jesus Himself, however, said to Nicodemus that “no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven” (Jn. 3:13).  Jesus in the Ascension returned to the place from which He had come down in the Incarnation.   Jesus’ use of the present tense in the same verse to speak of His being in Heaven guards against another error, more common than Adoptionism.   Jesus did not, as some have mistakenly taught based on a misinterpretation of Phil. 2:7, abandon His power, authority and glory as God in the Incarnation.   Rather, in the Incarnation, in which His full deity and humanity were forever united, He allowed his humanity to temporarily cloak His divine glory and power for the duration of His Humiliation, His journey from the throne of God to the Cross.   In His Exaltation, His upward journey beginning with His triumphant entry as Conqueror into Death’s Kingdom of Hell and culminating in His Ascension back to the right hand of God in Heaven, He clothed His humanity with His divine glory and power.   All the power and glory of God were His the entire time.   (2)


Recently, Charles III, our earthly king of the United Kingdom, the Dominion of Canada, Australia, and the other Commonwealth Realms, was crowned and enthroned in a Coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey.   This was not like the inauguration of a president in the American republic south of our border.  The Americans elect their next president in the November of one year, and he is sworn into office in the inauguration in the January of the next year.   The previous president remains in office until the inauguration of the next, who does not become president until he is sworn into office.   By contrast King Charles III did not become our king in the Coronation but the moment his mother, our late Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth II, passed away.   The office of king was his by right of inheritance, the Coronation was merely a ceremony that formally and publically solemnized it.   In this difference we find an illustration of the difference between the Ascension of Jesus Christ to the right hand of God in Heaven in orthodox theology and the same event as understood by the Adoptionist heresy.   Jesus Christ is the King of Kings, not the president of presidents.   The position of glory and power, to which He ascended forty days after the Resurrection, had always been His by right as the Son of God.


(1)    This verse is found in what textual critics call the “longer ending” of St. Mark’s Gospel, consisting of the last twelve verses, verses 9-20, of chapter sixteen.  The authenticity of this passage is disputed, but for no good reason.   The vast majority of manuscripts contain the passage as it stands in the Received Text, there is plentiful Patristic evidence for it that predates the oldest manuscripts (St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus both cite the passage, to give but two of the oldest examples), the ancient lectionaries support the authenticity of the passage, and the few manuscripts that leave it out do not agree among themselves, some ending with verse 8, others including an alternate ending (the “shorter ending”), others yet including a mashup of both endings, with all of these alternatives adding up to a very small handful of witnesses against the passage.  The most important of the few – three to be precise – manuscripts that end the text at verse 8, Codex Vaticanus or B, nullifies its own testimony against the passage by ending the Gospel in the second column of a leaf that is three columns wide and leaving the third column blank, contrary to the practice of the copyist elsewhere in the manuscript, leaving a space sufficient to contain the omitted ending.   This indicates the copyist knew of the longer ending.  B’s testimony has been given much weight – too much in my opinion – for the last century and a half, due to its age, but the age of a manuscript cannot be legitimately counted against a majority reading if the manuscript itself bears evidence, as in this case that the reading against which it testifies is older than the manuscript.   It testifies only that the copyist for some unknown reason did not accept the authenticity of the passage.  In the second most important of the three manuscripts – Codex Sinaiticus or Aleph, which is not an independent witness of Vaticanus, the two being clearly copies of the same source manuscript – the leaves which contain the relevant portion of the Gospel are replacement leaves, from a different hand than the original copyist.   Other evidence against the originality of the passage is extremely weak.  Eusebius of Caesarea, the Father of Church History, made reference to the absence of the ending in some copies of Mark, but in the context of presenting two alternate solutions to a harmonization issue of the Resurrection accounts of Matthew and Mark, with Eusebius supporting the other option.   St. Jerome quoted Eusebius at one spot, but both Fathers elsewhere argued for treating the ending as authentic.   There are some ancient manuscripts that include marginal notes where the scribe makes reference to the absence of the verses in other manuscripts, but these tend to support the authenticity of the passage, by saying in some, for example, that it is found in the more ancient manuscripts.   To this date, no argument has been made for the inauthenticity of these verses that comes close to being as compelling as the argument made for their authenticity, by Dean John William Burgon in The Last Twelve Verses of The Gospel According to S. Mark Vindicated Against Recent Critical Objectors and Established (1871).   For an answer to more recent arguments from the critical camp, in particular those raised by the late Bruce M. Metzger, see James Snapp Jr., Authentic: The Case for Mark 16:9-20, 2011, 2016.

(2)   St. Thomas Aquinas included a very helpful discussion of some of these matters in Summa Theologica, III, Q.57.  

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