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The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem is still there as it was in Our Lord’s day, as it was in King David’s day, as it always was. In fact its appearance, religiously anyway, remained relatively unchanged for centuries- the buildings on the summit, were mainly churches and monasteries. And there is one little mosque. It is a modest little effort, built in the centre of what was the crusader church (11th century) dedicated to the Ascension- a church never completed- and in that tiny mosque-chapel is commemorated the site where Jesus said farewell to the Apostles, according to St Luke.
The distance from the Temple Mount in the Old City to the top of the Mount of Olives is just a Sabbath day’s journey- half a mile. Many pilgrims make the journey up, past the Church of All Nations in Gethsemane which covers the rock where Jesus agonised before his arrest, and up the path with the Jewish cemetery on the right, and the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene on the left (where the mother of the Duke of Edinburgh is buried), and past the Franciscan Church shaped as a tear Dominus Flevit (The Lord Wept). From the summit on the eastern side is the valley of the Judean Wilderness with the winding road to Jericho and on to the Dead Sea. The summit of The Mount itself is an ecumenical mix of buildings, with Catholics and Orthodox and Lutherans all having a slice of that sacred place, all with their history of unity and separation. Mainly European Christians maintain their stake there with their Benedictine and Carmelite convents, and the Greek Orthodox with their Viri Galilei monastery, and a Russian Church and convent where the last relative of the Czars died not so long ago. All acquired their properties and kept them against a background of centuries of war. The Moslems control the mosque-chapel, under the Jews, who now control the whole Mount of Olives since June 1967 (The Six Day War). It is so instructive for those who come as recent pilgrims to retrace here the footsteps of Jesus in his last days, and reinvigorate their own faith by the journey.
St. Luke’s Account (Acts 1:1-11)
St. Luke is the only evangelist to place the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. He says that the Galilean companions of Jesus who witnessed it were not depressed as he left them; they rejoiced because he went to his Father to prepare the next stage for them through the Holy Spirit. Their mission was to change the world, to transform it into a world of love, and he would enable them to do it(Mk 16:20).
The Scandal of Particularity
The way in which The Gospels present the meaning of the Good News as ‘God with us’ is very specific in space and time. There are dates and places and references to historical figures. Jesus in his public life is in the ordinary world of every day. The questions are posed. Why this people, why in this land, why with these chosen witnesses? The Incarnation took place in Palestine, the size of Wales. It seemed too confined a space for such an enormous task world-shaping event. Yet the New Testament writers never thought there was anything especially strange in this. They showed no modesty and furnished no apology for such a small geographical reference. Despite their tiny land Jews were accustomed to universalism. They knew there was a huge world out there. For centuries it had visited them, and normally with terror and destruction, invasion after invasion. With the coming of their expected and hoped for Messiah some of Jesus’ disciples may have thought it was pay-back time. “Will you at this time restore the fortunes of Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Perhaps this is just Luke’s way of having the particularistic question raised and answered by Jesus himself. Jews everywhere would have cared about what happened to their land of origin. And there were vastly more Jews living outside Palestine than in it. And they kept themselves to themselves wherever they were. The answer of Jesus to his Jewish interrogators shows the difference between the false particularity of Jewish nationalism, and the opposite which is universalism- Good News for all. God’s kingdom has no boundaries. Luke must have wanted this point emphasised because the two disciples on the road to Emmaus had also falsely expected that Jesus would restore the fortunes of Israel (Lk 24:21).
What is perfectly clear is that the Ascension is a statement about the non-particularity of God’s plan of salvation. The specific historical and geographical context that showed forth God’s providence- in Israel yes, but not just for Israel. Jesus wrought the change. The down-to-earth here and now of every aspect of the Old Testament people had provided the context in which ‘God with us’ would now be believed in as Good News for all. There would be no favoured nationalism. “You will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). Jesus is not presented as saying that you will be a witness for the old chosen race, but My witnesses. It was all about who he was. After the resurrection he is not a time conditioned and space conditioned saviour. The Ascension is presented by Luke like the reverse side of the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven (Dn 7:13ff.). Jesus is going back up to where he was before, and he will come again. The creator God is the Saviour God, and while what that salvation means had been shown forth in the mainly Galilean life of Jesus of Nazareth, and finally in his Passion, Death and Resurrection in Jerusalem, it was not the end of the story; it was its continuity.
Luke did not engage in a prolonged description of the Ascent of the Lord. He left us with the happy disciples who were invited to await further instructions. These came at Pentecost. Luke’s story would have been purely picturesque had he not concurred with the other evangelists and NT writers that Jesus was universally accessible after the resurrection -precisely because he was not confined by limitations of time and space. There was no scandal of particularity any more. The world wide mission began. The story goes on. We who follow may always make our way back to Jerusalem and to Galilee and visit those particular sites. However, listening to the texts and participating in the Sacrament here, we remake in faith the journey made so long ago in space and time by other believers. Now, whenever and wherever we celebrate it together we can all feel at home, waiting for the final coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ. A happy feast to you all.
Rev Richard J. Taylor