Did the Ascension really happen—did Jesus just push off a rock and rise to the sky?

We celebrate the Feast of the Ascension forty days after Easter, and many people, like you, will be pondering just how it was – or if it was – that Jesus literally ascended bodily into heaven as described in Luke 24:50-52 and Acts 1:9-11. Did he jump really high? Did he sprout wings and fly? Did an invisible hand lift him gently upward? It’s a natural question, especially since our modern sensibilities generally lean toward wanting to read the Bible as history.

The Catechism (#115-117) and the writings of Vatican II teach us that the Bible works on two levels, the literal/factual and the spiritual. We believe the Bible teaches the spiritual truth, even as Catholic and mainline Protestant teaching is that the Bible is not meant to be read as a completely verifiable, historical book. Although some events in the Bible can be verified, there are many more that can’t be, of which the Ascension is one. This doesn’t mean that the event didn’t occur, just that we have no means at this point to “prove” it.

However, if we can turn our minds from the maddening question of literal facticity, we might begin to plumb the depths of the spiritual meaning of Jesus’ Ascension. In both accounts of the Ascension, as well as in John’s Gospel, Jesus promises that when his time on earth is over, the Holy Spirit will be given to his followers, enabling them to continue his good works. Thus “the ‘withdrawal’ of Jesus is not so much an absence as it is a presence in a new and more powerful mode,” that of the Holy Spirit who will not be bound in time or space or a physical body (Luke Timothy Johnson). Ultimately, the Ascension scene is meant to comfort us with Jesus’ promise to send an “Advocate,” not distress or puzzle us with his disappearance.

Ann Naffziger is a scripture instructor and spiritual director in the San Francisco Bay area. She has has written articles on spirituality and theology for various national magazines and edited several books on the Hebrew Scriptures.