What at first appeared on the scene as a possible liturgical fad of the fourth century subsequently wove itself into the fabric of virtually every Eucharistic prayer in Christendom from the late 300s AD. The so-called anamnesis or remembrance of the Messiah’s suffering and glory is so common that we scarcely note its importance and succinctness as a declaration of both Jesus’ meritorious actions and their connected rewards: “Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the blessed passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension into heaven of Christ, your Son, our Lord, we, your servants and your holy people, offer to your glorious majesty from the gifts that you have given us, this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim, the holy Bread of eternal life and the Chalice of everlasting salvation” (Eucharistic Prayer I or Roman Canon).
This remembrance or anamnesis of the Paschal Mystery follows immediately after the words of institution. We can trace back Eucharistic Prayer I to its earliest extant textual witness in a parallel text slightly adapted for Milanese use, as attested by St. Ambrose (post 374 AD): “Therefore we remember his most glorious passion, his Resurrection from the dead, and Ascension into heaven. We offer you this spotless, reasonable, bloodless victim” (De sacramentis IV.6.26).
As these examples show, by the end of the fourth century, liturgical texts typically underlined the importance of the Ascension as the glorious culmination of the Resurrection. Yet how is Jesus’ Ascension a culmination? Is it not the Resurrection, which supplies humanity with well-founded hope to trust in the merits of Jesus’ passion, what is offered for us? Jesus’ cross on our behalf, even as a substitutionary death for our criminal trespasses, proves its value by God raising his dead Son, as the principal and visible sign or foundation of our hope in relation to his passion, due to its miraculous outcome. What possibly can the Ascension add to hope, save only to designate the place wherein the Messiah reigns?
In this article, I seek to explain why the Ascension was added onto liturgical listings as the final glorious action of Jesus.
However, before discussing the biblical significance of the Ascension, from whence derives the patristic inspiration to write Eucharistic prayers extolling its place of honor at the table of the passion and Resurrection, I should mention the inspiration for the structure and themes of Eucharistic Prayer II. The so-called Canon of (Pseudo-)Hippolytus reveals—whatever its origins—the Ascension to be ostensibly less than universal, not yet a third leg of any mysterious footstool. The initial expansion of the words of institution to include the post-consecratory anamnesis in the Latin version of the popular Apostolic Tradition of Ps.-Hippolytus runs thus: “When you do this, you do my remembrance. Remembering therefore his death and Resurrection, we offer to you the bread and cup, giving thanks to you because you have held us worthy to stand before you and minister to you” (Apostolic Tradition 4.11).
We notice that what may be an early (Syrian) Eucharistic format of remembrance reveals a conspicuous absence of the Ascension from the anamnesis in what could be a very late third-century, or more probably very early fourth-century, composition. How do we account for this expansion?
The Ascension in the Gospels
The so-called longer ending of Mark (16:9-20) appears to be the earliest witness to the Ascension, the paschal event that helps us to understand fully the mission of Jesus: “Therefore, after speaking to them [the disciples], the Lord was taken up (anelêphthê) into heaven, and he sat on the right (hand) of God. Then they preached, after they went out, while the Lord was cooperating and confirming the message through subsequent signs. Amen” (Mark 16:19-20).
By the end of the fourth century, liturgical texts typically underlined the importance of the ascension as the glorious culmination of the resurrection. Yet how is Jesus’ Ascension a culmination?
This earliest Gospel (ca. 68 AD) treats Jesus’ exaltation to God’s right hand on his throne as the final event precipitating apostolic preaching of the whole message contained in the Gospel. Why? In short, the answer lies in one of Jesus’ own central talking points in this Gospel: “The Lord said to my Lord [the king]: ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool’” (Psalm 110:1). Jesus asks those learned in the Scriptures—hinting at his future Ascension to his Father in Mark 16:19-20—“Therefore, very David calls Him ‘Lord’: Whence is he His Son?” (Mark 12:37).
Jesus proves to be the Messiah or the New David ruling eternally over Israel as the Wonderchild prophesied for all nations to Abraham around 2000 BC (Genesis 18:14) and, again, around 725 BC (Isaiah 7:14; 9:5-6) only upon his Ascension to the Father’s right hand. Only then does his birth in David’s city, anointing at his baptism, and other messianic events terminate in complete restoration of Israel to an everlasting kingdom where all will be shepherded in gloriously resurrected bodies. Jesus’ preaching (Psalm 110:1) in the Temple led to him being interrogated (Mark 14:61-63) whether he is Messiah, based upon exegesis of this Psalm with respect to himself. The result is Jesus saying: “I am. And you shall see the Son of Man sat upon the right (hand) of power and come with the clouds of heaven.”
The same vocabulary and material used for the Ascension in the longer ending of Mark is also known to St. Luke (Acts 1:2; 1:10-11; 2:33), where the Apostles stare with their eyes into the heavens. They are told that the manner in which they saw Jesus leave them is the way by which he shall come again. I must agree with both the pars sanior and maior pars of biblical exegetes that St. Luke’s lone reference to Jesus “being taken up” (Greek: analepsis; Latin: ascensio) in a passing comment refers to Jesus’ fulfilling prophecy (by going to Jerusalem as above in Acts 1:2; 1:10-11). Consequently, St. Luke’s Gospel one time uses a sacred shorthand to refer to the passion, death, Resurrection, and Ascension to the right hand of God by summing all these up by the term: “taken up” (Luke 9:51). This is astounding that, as early as St. Luke, the entire Pascal Mystery is defined not by its principal merits (the passion), nor by the primary reason for the virtue of hope (the Resurrection), but by the culmination or manifestation of Jesus reigning as messiah and ushering in the Kingdom of God at a heavenly court (the Ascension). St. Luke’s idiosyncratic choice to define Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem to suffer and to die by the post-resurrection term, “Ascension,” clearly shows that the patristic compositions of Eucharistic prayers do not really develop the Ascension as part of Paschal Mystery but rather compile a more intricate weave of biblical themes related to the Eucharist: the passion, death, and Resurrection of Christ. The Ascension is biblically worthy of inclusion into what becomes a triad, with the result that the passion and death together fall under one umbrella, “the passion,” while the Resurrection and Ascension form the other two legs of this mysterious footstool in the Roman Canon.
As early as St. Luke, the entire pascal mystery is defined not by its principal merits (the Passion), nor by the primary reason for the virtue of hope (the Resurrection), but by the culmination or manifestation of Jesus reigning as messiah and ushering in the Kingdom of God at a heavenly court (the Ascension).
The Ascension in the Acts of the Apostles
Finally, I need to draw attention to a speech in Acts. Normally, exegetes note that, on one hand, St. Luke (similar to the approach taken by the Greek historian Thucydides) supplies his own style and arranges according to his own tastes various speeches in Acts. On the other hand, traces of earlier texts upon which St. Luke draws are present too. Given this literary background, St. Peter’s (translated) speech before the supreme Sanhedrin is recorded thus: “The God of our Fathers raised Jesus, whom you managed to hang upon a tree. God raised (hypsôsen) this one prince (archêgon) and savior at his right (hand) to give repentance to Israel and loosing of sins” (Acts 5:30-32).
The act of “raising at the right” in Mark and Luke (viz., Acts) means to underline the Ascension or enthronement of the Messiah. What is more, Jesus began his public ministry in Luke 4 by citing Isaiah (now known to be the most popular prophet among first-century Jews) and throughout St. Luke’s Gospel this prophet holds pride of place. The best explanation for Jesus as “prince” is likewise drawn from Isaiah’s rather idiosyncratic use of “prince of Israel” (e.g., LXX Isaiah 3:7). I suspect that St. Peter’s speech about “prince Jesus” above originally referred in Hebrew to Jesus as the prince of peace (Isaiah 9:5-6). Again, the Wonderchild must be enthroned as Messiah and rule as prince or king for Jews to accept Jesus winning victory over Israel’s enemies—albeit the universal enemy is decidedly death. This early speech is important insofar as it attests possible Hebrew accounts (arguably in Aramaic) where Jesus’ exaltation in the 30’s AD refers principally to his sitting at the right hand, not to his Resurrection.
In order to complement this supposition, I now turn to St. Stephen’s martyrdom speech that is very typical of Hebrew euchology or prayer format, where St. Stephen reorganizes a long Hebrew anamnesis of God’s doings with Israel that culminates in the coming of Jesus in flesh as the Messiah. St. Stephen’s seizure and martyrdom are entirely absorbed with Jewish accusations about him repeating Jesus’ binding and loosing narrative (e.g., Jesus’ bestowal of St. Peter’s keys to loose and Jesus’ mission announced in Luke chapter 4). Elsewhere, Jesus speaks of loosing the Mosaic Law, while announcing destruction of the Temple. Acts uses Old Testament theophany imagery: St. Stephen’s face is said to be that of an angel, as in Jewish Second Temple literature, where it signifies a manifestation of God himself (Acts 6:13-15). This all points to St. Luke using arcane material that Greco-Romans could not hope to decipher within their own culture. Acts 7:1-50 then records St. Stephen repeating a lengthy anamnesis of the history of Abraham’s progeny and God’s wonders to Israel. This ends with St. Stephen identifying Jesus as the Temple not made by human hands.
In context, this makes perfect sense since St. Stephen is trying to explain what he (and Jesus) meant by loosing the law and destroying the Temple of Jesus’ body (Mark 14:58; John 2:19). However, St. Stephen’s apex moment is neither Jesus’ death, nor Resurrection, but in announcing his vision into the heavens where the Son of Man is standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56). Due to St. Luke’s opening lines, we know this event to be Jesus’ visible ascent, a form or type for his future return. What strikes us as counterintuitive is the fact that St. Stephen’s evangelization toward the supreme Sanhedrin preaches not death and Resurrection, but rather Jesus as alive in body sitting at the right of the Father as God’s Son, very much in the image of Psalm 110:1. St. Luke, therefore, is undoubtedly in possession of an early tradition woven into his narrative that sees messiahship as an important point of reference for Jesus’ life and teachings to have meaning for those reading the material. Consequently, testimony of Jesus’ Ascension was central in early witnessing to the Jews that the Messiah is alive in heaven and guiding the members of “the Way” or early Jewish sect that will become known in Antioch only later as “Christians.”
The Ascension in St. Paul
Granting that St. Luke was St. Paul’s companion, did St. Paul himself affirm the Ascension as a central element of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus? I wish to answer by quickly referring to so-called proto-Pauline epistles (seven uncontested works of St. Paul). Then I’ll follow up by mentioning the deutero-Pauline epistles traditionally ascribed to St. Paul or one of his secretaries.
Given limits of space, it is important to emphasize that the technical term “Ascension” is used in 1 Timothy, but not elsewhere by St. Paul. Yet, St. Paul’s primary writings do speak of Jesus’ exaltation. I would like to suggest that it is a common mistake to suppose that St. Paul restricts exaltation to mean “resurrection” only. He indisputably saw himself as the evangelizer of the Gentiles. Hence, the more universally controversial topic of the resurrection was his focus, not the political messianism of an ethnic group unintelligible to the rest of the Roman Empire. If St. Paul himself did not emphasize the Ascension in mixed Gentile-Jewish company, the Gospel and Acts clearly focused on Jewish messianism. Nevertheless, St. Paul used approvingly materials (presumably songs) recited liturgically among his addressees. I propose two such hymns suffice to argue that St. Paul knew the messianic focus on the Ascension, even though he more ostensibly developed the importance of Jesus’ death and Resurrection, when discussing the Paschal Mystery to mixed communities, especially regarding the Eucharist (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 11:23-32).
The last stanzas of the famous “Philippian’s hymn” are cited presumptively as familiar to his addressees: “[Jesus] was found as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient until death, death of a cross. For this, too, God exalted him, and gifted to him a name which is above every name so that in the name of Jesus every knee should bend of (those) heavenly ones and earthly ones and (those) dwelling under the earth” (Philippians 2:8-11). Modern exegetes generally agree that this is neither St. Paul’s vocabulary, nor composition. Hence, we ought not project Pauline resurrection themes onto it. In fact, being exalted above the heavenly beings looks to be a reference to (LXX) Psalm 96:9, where Yahweh is exalted above all the heavens and earth, typically reigning on his cloud. Therefore, this is likely a pre-Pauline Jewish hymn meant to highlight the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, like unto the vision of St. Stephen, so that the Messiah bodily reigns in heaven.
Our earliest witnesses to a moveable celebration of Ascension in Jerusalem in the mid-fourth century put its commemoration on the vigil of Pentecost.
To supplement this, we add a deutero-Pauline testimony, where another ancient and anonymous hymn is endorsed touching on what is called “the mystery of piety” (1 Timothy 3:16). From the hymn emerges a chiastic structure:
A. God appeared in flesh
B. He was justified in spirit
C. He was seen by angels
C. He was preached among nations
B. He was believed in throughout the world
A. He was taken (anelêmphthê) up in glory
The context for singing this is in the assembly of God. They are living temples in whom God dwells. The assembly individually and—as a whole—mirrors God’s dwelling in the original First Temple with its Ark. For our purposes, I note that chiasm (A.) ensures that we associate Jesus’ original flesh with him who now reigns at the right hand in glory. Finally, the deutero-Pauline literature reminds us that to be exalted means that one “sits as God in the Temple” (2 Thessalonians 2:4). As St. Paul bears out in his writings, exaltation is originally an Ascension motif more than a Resurrection motif.
Liturgical Meaning of the Ascension
The Ascension reflects an ancient stratum of the Gospel meant for messianic Jews to appreciate the Kingdom of God restored in power, which is life-giving power for raising the dead and establishing the resurrected around the throne of the Lamb. The Ascension mystery is the final fruit of the Paschal Mystery. If the first fruit of the Resurrection is Jesus’ body, the harvest will be the general resurrection of glorious bodies, but these are “caught up” in the clouds in the air of heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:17) or in mini-Ascensions to their final place where the king of heaven rules his subjects for eternity.
Admittedly, many in the United States lament the loss of the proper calendar day for Mass of the Ascension, traditionally a Thursday. Unlike ancient liturgical calendars before the Middle Ages, the richly developed Medieval calendar added the virtue of emulating annually the New Testament days upon which each event of salvation took place. We now delight in a moveable Easter and Triduum in imitation of what Jesus himself once lived and celebrated. We no longer have the conscious memory of second-century Christians who, for example, knew Jesus’ combined celebration of the passion-death-Resurrection to be 25 March (ca. 29/31 AD). Early on, antique Christians added a moveable Easter (as a combined passion-death-Resurrection celebration), eventually fixing it everywhere to a Sunday and then expanding the Sunday backwards to include Jesus’ three-day passion. As such, they added special days to emulate Holy Week as lived by Jesus in the New Testament. These were all innovations that enriched our ability to follow intensely the progress of the passion until the Resurrection.
As St. Paul bears out in his writings, exaltation is originally an Ascension motif more than a Resurrection motif.
But what of the Ascension? In a similar fashion, the most ancient evidence of the Christian feast of Pentecost knew a combined feast of Ascension-Pentecost. Our earliest witnesses to a moveable celebration of Ascension in Jerusalem in the mid-fourth century put its commemoration on the vigil of Pentecost. But, as the desire to emulate history with greater calendrical accuracy became more popular, Ascension eventually was moved back to the Thursday on the tenth day before Pentecost. As such, many of us feel an impoverishment of our calendar in dioceses that overturn this tradition of mirroring calendrically Jesus’ life on a Thursday. Yet does this mean that an Ascension-Sunday must per se less dispose us to grace?
In answer, we can see that the Ascension was topically and historically associated in Jerusalem with the Upper Room or the Mount of Olives where biblical events of the Last Supper, Ascension, and Pentecost all occurred according to oral tradition. Here, Jesus traditionally ascended to heaven. Curiously, however, our fourth-century testimonies recount the Ascension-vigil (on the night of Pentecost) occurring at the grotto of the crib of Bethlehem! The place manifesting the descent of Word made flesh was the place of celebration for the visible flesh to ascend back to heaven! This thematic association is not entirely surprising, as some Medieval versions of the Roman Canon historically included the nativity of Jesus in the post-consecratory anamnesis along with the passion, death, Resurrection, and Ascension. In antiquity, the axis for understanding our salvation and redemption had always been the Incarnation and Resurrection.
Like early Jerusalem liturgy, we can still spiritually benefit from a Sunday celebration of Ascension, as those pilgrims once did. They brought their experiences back to their local Latin and Greek Churches, which eventually led to the universal adoption of the Ascension in all rites of Christendom. The feast in Jerusalem only gradually landed upon our current day (according to the Roman rite) after trying out other days in Paschaltide. Its present home as we now know it in our universal calendar—40 days after Easter—had been fixed before the Middle Ages.
Jesus, our ascending Angel, represents both Resurrection and its heavenly Ascension in the Roman Canon.
Spiritually, we best participate in the Mass of Ascension by remembering that Jesus’ resurrected body is called by St. Paul “the first fruits of resurrection” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23). Jewish thinking, like St. Paul, had long connected Passover (Easter) and Jewish Pentecost feasts strenuously since the date of Easter determined the date of Pentecost. Ritual prescriptions of Pentecost sometimes appear to be copies of rituals first celebrated at the Passover feast. Jesus is the New Temple as well as its gift of sacrifice. As the first fruits of a harvest were always offered to God in the Mosaic Law, Jesus’ body—the first fruit of a general resurrection—is daily offered upon an unbloody altar to God at each Mass in imitation of the perpetual presence of the Lamb before the heavenly altar.
St. Paul uses Pentecost terminology of first fruits of harvest to identify Jesus’ pleasing body offered to the Father that brings the Spirit as gift ten days later. Eucharistic Prayer I anticipates this motion of ascent and descent of the Ascension and Spirit of Pentecost (who raises the dead and who will raise our mortal bodies). This links the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost into the complete expression of the salvific mystery. Let us see the connection in the Roman Canon: “Look upon these offerings […] as once you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek […] In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high […] so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.”
Priests praying Eucharistic Prayer I, directly after mentioning the Ascension in the anamnesis, offer the resurrected flesh of Christ under the aegis of the first fruits of Abel, the firstborn of Abraham, and Abraham’s tithe. More surprisingly, the Angel of Great Counsel (LXX Isaiah 9:6), Jesus, who functions as Angel or messenger sent by God, ascends with the sacrament of his body to God’s right hand to present himself and it to the Father as first fruits and then to send down to us grace of the Spirit. Jesus, our ascending Angel, represents both Resurrection and its heavenly Ascension in the Roman Canon. The Roman Canon provides us a meditation at each Mass that our vocation as the harvest of future resurrection will not merely be to rise with Christ but to ascend in glory to the altar of the Lamb. In the Eucharist, we participate in a foretaste of this blessing by receiving the risen, ascending body, sacramentally, and begging his providential care of us as heavenly ruler at the right hand.
- While this translation is official for the Roman Rite in English, all other translations without citation are mine. ↑
- David Bradshaw, Maxwell Johnson, and Edward Phillips (translators), The Apostolic Tradition, in The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary, ed. Harold Attridge (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002), 40. ↑
- I translate here the Byzantine text form (= Btf 2005), which conveys the majority text as most likely to heard when Mass lectionaries were read and sung within the confines of Byzantium. As such, the text represents the readings known to most Greek Fathers, even if Syria and Alexandria knew other textual traditions that would have influenced their liturgical compositions in Greek (especially in the fourth century). ↑
- Btf 2005. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- In many dioceses in the United States, provinces of bishops have transferred the celebration of Ascension from the 40th day after the Resurrection to the following Sunday, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, per Canon 1246 §2. ↑
- Daniel Galadza, Liturgy and Byzantinization in Jerusalem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 35. ↑
- Stéphane Verhelst, La liturgie de Jérusalem à l’époque byzantine: Genèse et structures de l’année liturgique (Ph.D. diss, University of Jerusalem, 1993), 43, 151-153. ↑
- This ancient exegesis was known in Greek and Latin: e.g., Augustine notes the Eucharistic prayer’s Angel Christ to be God who appeared in Judges 13 and made himself, as Angel, part of the holocaust that ascends from the earthly altar to heaven, anticipating the cross. See Augustine of Hippo, Sancti Aureli Augustini Quaestionum in Heptateychum libri VII adnotationum in Iob liber unus, ed. Ioseph Zycha, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 28.3.3 (Vienna: F. Tempsky, 1885), 503-504 (ch. 7.53-54). ↑
- Compare both the Old Latin and Jerome’s Vulgate that have the exact same phrase (Acts 2:4): “repleti sunt omnes Spiritu sancto (all were filled with the Holy Spirit). The Roman Canon obliquely cites Acts 2:4: “omni…gratia repleamur (filled with every grace).” ↑
Adoremus Bulletin for May 2021: Vol. XXVI, no. 6