Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ascension: a tall tale

This past week liturgical churches observed Ascension, the festival that commemorates Jesus going to heaven after his resurrection. It is one of the stranger stories of the New Testament and is one of the best examples of how literal reading can not only be absurd but actually obscure what a text is trying to say.

Any one comparing how each of the four gospels comes to an end realizes there are significant differences between them. Given how scholars believe the gospels were written it is fairly easy to imagine the progression. Mark’s ending (Mark is the earliest gospel) is most famous for what it doesn’t include, namely an appearance of the risen Jesus. Women go and find the tomb empty on Easter morning. An angel tells them Jesus has risen and they should go tell the disciples that they will see Jesus in Galilee. The women flee in terror but say nothing to anyone. End of story.

Matthew, likely the next gospel written, obviously did not like how Mark ended his gospel. He basically retells Mark’s story to its ending but has the women flee in terror “and joy”, with the stated intention of obeying the angels’ (now two of them) instructions. Awkwardly, Matthew has Jesus appear at this point (running alongside them?) but all he does is repeat the angels’ directions. The disciples do go to Galilee and see Jesus. There is little action but Jesus gives a final sermon which includes the “great commission” to take the gospel into the world and “baptize all nations”.

Dating John is difficult because it seems to have been edited at various times and does not follow Mark’s chronology. This gospel also leaves Jesus on stage—twice. After Jesus appears in the upper room to Thomas to bring him to faith, the gospel is brought to a clear conclusion. The next chapter then has obviously been added later by another hand and gives an account of Jesus appearing to the disciples on the shore of Lake Tiberias. A “wrap-up” paragraph similar to the one in the previous chapter ends the gospel again. In neither case is Jesus “removed” from the scene.

Perhaps being more the dramatist, Luke appreciates that having Jesus reappear after his resurrection creates the problem of having him lingering on stage. At the end of his gospel, after Jesus has appeared to the disciples (in Jerusalem, not Galilee) he is “carried up into heaven”. To begin Acts, his second book, Luke double backs and again has the risen Jesus appear to the disciples. Here, alone among the gospel writers, Luke introduces the idea that Jesus appeared to the disciples for forty days after his resurrection (which is why Ascension always falls on the Thursday of the sixth week of the Easter season). A more involved conversation ensues and Jesus gives the disciples Matthean-like instructions to be his “witnesses…to the ends of the earth” (something he hadn’t done at the end of Luke’s gospel). After this we are told that Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Angels then appear and tell the disciples to stop staring into space and get to work.

Luke’s exclusive account of Jesus’ levitation into the clouds certainly creates problems for modern readers. Besides the obvious awkwardness of having Jesus fly away like Superman, one is also left wondering just what exactly happened to the fleshly and fish-eating Jesus (Luke 24) after leaving earth. Just what was that cloud he flew into? If Matthew and John were aware of any difficulty in leaving Jesus on earth, perhaps they anticipated that any story of his removal would simply create more narrative problems. More likely, it simply didn’t occur to them to include this dramatic element, because what becomes obvious when comparing how the gospels each end their stories is that these are not accounts of what has occurred based on eye-witness testimony. Each writer is taking a general tradition of Jesus’ resurrection and creating dramatic narratives consistent with their individual purposes, Luke included.

The notion of the gospel writers creating their material is extremely bothersome to many Christians. And yet the church’s acceptance of four distinctly different gospels makes clear that its concern at the time was not for journalistic or historical accuracy. Indeed the gospels themselves imply or say outright that their purpose in telling their stories is to proclaim the gospel and create faith, not report events. What is often missed today, however, is that the gospel writers did not create out of thin air. Rather, they followed the ancient and biblical tradition of creating new stories out of old. In doing so, they connected their work with the scriptural quilt that had been evolving over the centuries. They intentionally wove their stories into the greater narrative of God’s people.

There usually are multiple influences in any biblical composition but often one will stand out. In this case the tradition Luke clearly has in mind is the cycle of Elijah/Elisha stories, in particular the account of the passing of the mantle (literally) from the latter to the former. The key passage is 2 Kings 2: 9-11. Elisha knows his teacher Elijah is about to be “taken away” and that he will be assuming his responsibilities. As the moment nears Elisha decides to ask for help.

9When they had crossed [the Jordan], Elijah said to Elisha, "Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you." Elisha said, "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit." 10He responded, "You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not." 11As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.

Elijah wails in mourning. Nonetheless he takes up the mantle Elijah dropped and repeats Elijah’s miracle of parting the waters (a connection back to the Moses tradition). Elisha is ready to carry on the mission.

The parallels with Acts are pretty obvious and, as a result, so is Luke’s underlying message. Jesus, like Elijah, is taken up into heaven as the disciples watch. Their experience of Jesus’ ascension is the confirmation that, like Elisha, they will now inherit the spirit that has empowered Jesus. Luke is not a copycat, however, and so creates his own dramatic confirmation of this promise in the Pentecost story of the next chapter. Here is where the fire and whirlwind of Elijah’s ascent appear, as a “violent” wind/spirit fans the flames burning above the disciples’ heads. Subsequent events confirm the disciples are indeed on fire with the spirit and gospel message of Jesus. This is where Jesus has really gone: into the lives of his disciples.

Did Jesus ascend into heaven before the disciples’ eyes? No. Did any of the events in the Ascension/Pentecost narrative actually occur? Probably not, but who knows? Certainly Luke didn’t know, living more than a half-century (and a devastating war) after the time he is depicting. Increasingly scholars are recognizing Acts as fitting quite well into the style and form of the ancient novella. It doesn’t fit well at all as a work of journalism or history.

In the ascension story Luke has a theological message he is trying to convey. Whether these things actually happened is an obsession of ours and was irrelevant to Luke’s intent in including them (or creating them). The story is the work of a great theologian, not an investigative reporter. When we insist “this must have happened” because it’s in the Bible, we miss Luke’s whole purpose in writing and for many contemporary readers cause it to have the exact opposite affect Luke intended: it doesn’t create faith but drains it away.

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