Today is the Feast of the Ascension also known as Ascension Thursday, Holy Thursday, or Ascension Day, and commemorates the Christian belief of the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven. It is one of the ecumenical feasts (i.e., universally celebrated) of Christian churches, ranking with the feasts of the Passion, of Easter, and Pentecost. Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, the 40th day of Easter (following the count given in Acts 1:3), although some Christian denominations have moved the observance to the following Sunday. Many less liturgically minded denominations don’t observe the day in any special way although it is often marked on the calendar. Easter and Pentecost tend to be of much greater importance all around.
The ascension of Jesus is an important linking event between the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles which were both written by the same author. The Gospel concerns Jesus’ earthly life, and Acts concerns what happened afterwards. This 2-volume work is, therefore, unique in documenting both the events in Jesus’ life and how the early church developed out of those events. Luke uses Mark for the backbone of his gospel but adds a lot of material that is found nowhere else such as the Visitation of Mary, the Nativity, and childhood narratives about Jesus. If you have followed my other posts on Christian feasts you will know that I am highly skeptical of Luke. Practically every story he tells that is found nowhere else “miraculously” solves a logical puzzle. So, for example, how is it that the Messiah is foretold as coming from the lineage of David, and born in Bethlehem, but Jesus – who might be the Messiah – comes from Galilee? Simple. His parents took an unexpected trip to Bethlehem when Mary was pregnant because of a massive census ordered throughout the Roman empire by the emperor. That solves the logical puzzle concerning the Hebrew prophets but fails to account for the fact that no such census is known of, nor could have occurred without the empire disintegrating.
To my mind, the ascension of Jesus is of the same logical order as many other tales that Luke alone attests. The thing is that Luke did not like logical loose ends. People were wondering by Luke’s time such things as: “What are we going to do with John the Baptist’s disciples?” “What did Jesus do before he started traveling around and preaching?” and . . . “Where did Jesus go after the resurrection?” Luke’s answer to the latter is that he hung around for a while, but then ascended into heaven, leaving the Holy Spirit to come down on Pentecost and get the church started. Chapter 24 of Luke’s gospel recounts the resurrection followed by a few appearances of Jesus to his disciples, then this:
50 Then Jesus led them to Bethany, and lifting his hands to heaven, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. 52 So they worshiped him and then returned to Jerusalem filled with great joy. 53 And they spent all of their time in the Temple, praising God.
Luke picks up the action again at the start of Acts:
1In my first book [Luke’s gospel] I told you, Theophilus, about everything Jesus began to do and teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven after giving his chosen apostles further instructions through the Holy Spirit. 3 During the forty days after he suffered and died, he appeared to the apostles from time to time, and he proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive. And he talked to them about the Kingdom of God.
4 Once when he was eating with them, he commanded them, “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised, as I told you before. 5 John baptized with] water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6 So when the apostles were with Jesus, they kept asking him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?”
7 He replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
9 After saying this, he was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him. 10 As they strained to see him rising into heaven, two white-robed men suddenly stood among them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!”
So now we have a convenient segue into the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and the birth of the church. A little too convenient if you ask me. Stories of Heavenly ascents were fairly common in Judaic sacred texts signifying divine approval or the deification of an exceptional person. Elijah, for example, does not die but ascends to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). The Roman Catholic church continued this dogma with apocryphal tales of the ascension of Mary, mother of Jesus, who logically could not have died because she was born without sin, and therefore was not subject to the penalty for sin – death.
The ascension also assumes an ancient cosmology in which the sky is a big dome covering the earth, and heaven lies beyond that dome. By this reckoning, heaven is a space above the sky, so that people who are exempt from death can simply float up to the sky and beyond. Although it took several hundred years to develop a grander and more sophisticated cosmology, the story of the ascension of Jesus still has its devotees.
I’ve chosen angel cake (angel food cake in the US) for my recipe today. Usually I buy it when I want one (generally to eat with strawberries), but homemade is better – but a bit tricky to get really light. Maybe I’m being a bit cynical concerning Luke’s story by giving you a recipe that rises a lot, and floats like clouds, like Jesus did, but I assure you I am only cynical about Luke’s rationalizing, not about the heart of the Christian message.
1¾ cups superfine sugar
¼ tsp salt
1 cup cake flour, sifted
12 egg whites at room temperature
⅓ cup warm water
1 tsp orange extract (or vanilla extract)
1½ teaspoons cream of tartar
Preheat oven to 350˚F.
Sift half of the sugar with the salt and the cake flour.
In a large bowl, thoroughly combine the egg whites, water, orange extract, and cream of tartar with a whisk, or a stand mixer with a balloon whisk. When the egg whites start to foam switch to a hand mixer. Slowly sift in the remaining half of the sugar, beating continuously at medium speed. Stop when you have medium peaks. Sift enough of the flour and sugar mixture to dust the top of the foam. Fold the flour in gently with a spatula, then repeat until all of the flour mixture is incorporated. You must maintain the foam as much as you can.
Spoon the mixture gently into an ungreased baking pan (I use non-stick tube pan). Bake for 35 minutes then check for doneness by inserting a tooth pick. When done it will come out clean.
Invert the pan on a cooling rack, and cool for at least an hour before attempting to turn out.
Typically I serve angel cake with strawberries I prepare by slicing them into a bowl, dusting then with superfine sugar, and leaving them overnight it the refrigerator. Next day the juices from the strawberries make a tasty sauce.