Mr Sunter's Sunday Gospel reflection notes seem to have a wide circulation at the moment. The question is whether they should have. Because Mr Sunter's reflection for today seems to suggest that the Ascension is not a real historical event.
Let's look at his Ascension Sunday effort. The opening paragraph gives a summary of the Gospel for today in the Ordinary Form, the Great Commission.
He goes on though:
"... the focus of today’s feast is much more on the first reading than the gospel. The opening verses of the Book of Acts, from the author of Luke-Acts, [oh dear, is a parish bulletin reflection really the place to raise questions about the authorship of the Gospel and Acts? Or is this code signalling to us 'I am a theologian'!] describe the final instructions of Jesus to his disciples and then his ‘lifting up’. The Luke-Acts writer is the only gospel writer to actually describe the Ascension. The fact that the other gospels don’t discuss the Ascension in any detail at all is a good indication that this description should not be taken literally. [No it doesn't! This is entirely erroneous - on the face of it, rationalist-modernism at its worst! It is not fundamentalism to believe that Jesus actually lived, actually suffered on the cross, actually descended into hell, actually rose again, and actually ascended into heaven. Rather it is our faith...]
How many times does Scripture need to describe an event? Once!
Let's be clear, the fact that an event is mentioned in one or five places in Scripture is completely irrelevant to its historicity. All Scripture is inspired! And if the number of detailed mentions in the Gospels were the criterion for historical fact, we wouldn't believe that Pentecost was a real event either, or that St Paul undertook assorted missions or that - and I could go on at length. In short this argument is just silly.
In any case, the claim is just plain wrong. In fact the Ascension cracks several other mentions in the Gospels and other books of Scripture (take a look at Mark 16:19, John 20:17 and several references in the letters of St Paul).
Did Our Lord literally Ascend?
|Hans Von Lulmback, 1480-1522|
As Catholics we do actually have to believe that the Ascension was an actual historical event. We do actually have to believe that Our Lord, in his real body actually did go up into the sky. Why? Because Scripture tells us so, it is part of all of the ancient and current creeds, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church confirms the traditional understanding of the event (CCC 660)!
Here is what Acts actually says:
"And when he had said these things, while they looked on, he was raised up: and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they were beholding him going up to heaven, behold two men stood by them in white garments. Who also said: You men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven? This Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come as you have seen him going into heaven."
Sounds like a pretty literal ascent to me!
It is a tradition reflected in numerous icons and paintings, as depicted above.
The Catechism talks about 'the historical and transcendent event of the Ascension' (660). And here is how the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarises the doctrine:
132. What does the Ascension mean?
After forty days during which Jesus showed himself to the apostles with ordinary human features which veiled his glory as the Risen One, Christ ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of the Father. He is the Lord who now in his humanity reigns in the everlasting glory of the Son of God and constantly intercedes for us before the Father. He sends us his Spirit and he gives us the hope of one day reaching the place he has prepared for us.
Not much scope for confusion there!
And of course, the words in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed (that we say at Mass each week) were formulated specifically to counter the heretical views around at the time on this subject! Of course, sometimes it seems that there is no such thing as a new heresy, just old ones that endlessly get recycled...
So what isn't literal about all of this? Heavens above?
I suppose one could note that we don't have to believe that heaven is literally in the sky above us. When Our Lord's feet disappeared from view in that cloud, we don't have to believe he is literally sitting in the sky. In fact, that is part of the reason the disciples were told to stop looking up there!
So it is true that ascent into the clouds that were seen are symbols. That doesn't mean the disciples didn't really see clouds though! We have many things in the Church that are both symbols and reality, not least the sacraments.
And in fact Reginaldus over at New Theological Movement has done a helpful treatment on the nature of the Ascension and where heaven is for further reading purposes.
But wait there's more...
Mr Sunter's piece goes on:
However, the message of the Ascension is a powerful one. It reminds us that Jesus, the human incarnation of God on earth, was limited to a specific time and place in history. [This sounds like a pretty dangerous line to me. Our Lord after all still has a resurrected body - the Incarnation in this sense is not over! Secondly, he is not gone from us altogether, but has in fact inaugurated the Kingdom, continues to intercede for us and give us life in the Eucharist. And thirdly, isn't there that bit in the Creed about Him coming again!] Despite the physical limitations of his life on earth,[?] Jesus ensured that his message and ministry would continue through those he had taught. Knowing that the disciples would need time to grieve and come to terms with all that had occurred in a relatively short space of time, Jesus promised that the Spirit would come upon them in the days to come.That visiting of the Spirit upon the disciples at Pentecost was the motivation to set about doing what Jesus had charged them to do. [This all sounds rather Pelagian to me, suggesting the spread of the Gospel came about by an act of will on the part of the Apostles - Pentecost didn't give them 'motivatation', it gave them the necessary grace!] Without the Ascension, there is no Pentecost.[Yes on that we can certainly agree!]
Pretty disappointing to see the basics of the Creed undermined in this way in a parish bulletin, a place where orthodoxy might surely be reasonably expected!
No wonder catholics are so confused about their faith.