He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. (Acts 1.9)
It’s easy to forget interactions between Jesus and His followers are decidedly different after His resurrection. Before Calvary, He’s very much a hands-on manager. After Easter, He moves into a supervisory position. His instructions are more strategic than tactical. During the interim between the Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus is also fairly elusive. Unhindered by time and space, He comes and goes. He meets with the disciples, yet He doesn’t keep company with them. We don’t have any post-Easter passages that begin, “Jesus and the disciples…” Any time we see Jesus His followers are already assembled. He appears, says what’s on His mind, and leaves—often vanishing before their eyes.
Obviously, Jesus is passing the torch to His disciples, laying out Phase II in His ministry. Hereafter, Christ’s involvement will originate on a (literally) higher level. While the disciples facilitate daily operation of His work, He’ll oversee it, provide counsel, and intervene as needed. But mundane decisions—the where, how, and when—are up to them. Before leaving them physically, therefore, He eases them into functioning without detailed directions. Once they get the hang of it (or at least grasp the extent of their task), it’s time to go.
At a glance, Christ’s detachment mystifies us. His disciples have undergone unbearable trauma. It’s not an exaggeration to compare their confusion and uncertainty to the response to 9/11. What happened to Jesus wasn’t unexpected, yet the experience proved far worse than they feared. Much like Americans spent the days following the Al Qaeda attacks waiting for the next horror, the disciples tremble to think what else might transpire in the wake of their Rabbi’s demise. The Crucifixion irrevocably altered their world—the world—and even after Jesus returns to them, picking up where they left off is pointless, if not altogether impossible. Something new is taking shape, which is why Christ’s aloofness makes sense. Were He to resume leadership in the same vein as He led His followers before Calvary and Easter, they would be all the more dependent on Him, constantly worried about His and their security. And He’d be corseted into a role He’s outgrown. Keeping His distance while sticking around is the wisest, most compassionate thing Jesus can do. His gradual withdrawal prepares all concerned for new roles and responsibilities that take effect when He goes.
Revealed in Us
Peculiar discrepancies throw various accounts of the Ascension out of synch. Matthew doesn’t report it all. John alludes to it without documenting it. Mark’s coverage surfaces in a later addendum to the original text, which sets the event soon after Easter during dinner with the disciples. Rather interestingly, the most glaring variation is found between Luke and Acts, also written by Luke. In what reads like a dashed-off epilogue, Luke’s gospel says Jesus leads the disciples to a spot near Bethany on Easter night. “While he was blessing them,” Luke 24.51 explains, “he left them and was taken up into heaven.” Acts also places the Ascension near Bethany—on the Mount of Olives—yet it stages the event 40 days after the Resurrection, or 10 days before Pentecost, the birth date of the Church. According to Acts 1.9, after Jesus echoes the Great Commission, telling the disciples to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit, which will empower them to witness around the world, “He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.”
Nearly everyone prefers Acts’ account for its detail and proximity to Pentecost. (Besides, the Mount of Olives setting makes for much more dramatic visuals, as artists have consistently demonstrated.) But no one can say with full certainty when and where the Ascension happens. So we ask why the writers treat such an enormously significant moment rather indifferently. While we can’t definitively answer this either, the manner in which they handle the Ascension definitely suggests knowing its specifics is less critical than understanding its legacy, i.e., the Body of Christ that springs to life soon after Jesus returns to the Father.
The image of a cloud hiding Jesus from sight is extraordinarily illuminating in what it represents. With Christ hidden from earthly view, it becomes our duty to see He’s revealed in us. The majesty of the Ascension isn’t found in compelling imagery of Jesus rising into Heaven. It’s in we who watch Him ascend. We know Jesus is taken up, not taken away. His presence in us guarantees His presence in the world. This is truly something new unlike anything humanity has ever known. And humanity's knowledge of the living, eternally present Christ rests solely on our shoulders. He has passed the torch to each of us. Once we accept this, it’s up to us to decide where, how, and when we carry its light.
The Ascension marks the moment Christ passes the torch to us. We carry its light to reveal His presence in the world.