St Luke furnishes us with two accounts of the Ascension of Christ: One at the end of his gospel where he simply describes Jesus being taken away from us up into heaven (Luke 24,50 to 52) and the other one right at the beginning of Acts where he describes Jesus being enveloped in a cloud and taken out of their sight (Acts 1,9).
Theologians generally agree that Luke was developing his sense of what the event of the Ascension really meant. Because far from disappearing into heaven never really to be seen again, the cloud in the Bible is a sign of God’s presence with us: when Israel walked out of Egypt, ‘the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud’ (Exodus 13,21). The cloud was a sign of God being in our midst.
When Moses scaled Sinai to stand before God, the Lord descended in a cloud, later he filled the tent of the meeting with his cloudy presence. In the book of Numbers and the history books of the Bible the cloud always features in temple worship whenever a stone building becomes the place of God’s real presence: a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for it was the glory of the Lord that had filled the house…’ (2 Chronicles 5,13-14).
Understood in this way the message of the Ascension is not that Christ vanishes beyond the earth’s orbit, but that he enters into the Father’s glory, which is set to fill the earth in preparation for the glory of eternity.
2 June 2019