The Ascension of the Lord according to St. Mark’s Gospel

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From my forthcoming work on Mark’s Gospel, Loosing the Lion, in which I try to tie the longer ending into Mark’s story:


Mark 16:8 seems a weird way to end a Gospel, and so scribes in the early Church concocted triumphant endings to Mark out of material from the other Gospels and Acts, giving us Mark 16:9-20. Although the longer ending isn’t original, being so radically different in vocabulary, style, tone, and content, it’s canonical. Is there a way to read it in line with Mark’s story?

Yes. For all the doubt, denial, and despair in the story, Mark’s Gospel is ultimately a story of triumph. Jesus triumphs over sin, death, hell, and Devil, from his exorcisms and healings to his crucifixion and resurrection. The final word of Mark isn’t really the women’s failure, but the resurrection. Whatever the women do, God raised Jesus from the dead. And the longer ending reflects that reality, the reality of the resurrection, as well as the final eternal enthronement and exaltation of Jesus, Son of Man and Son of God, in the ascension.

Jesus appears to the eleven (Judas having departed) while they are “at table” (Mark 16:14), suggesting the eucharistic communion of the Church under apostolic authority. Jesus’ rebuke of their lack of faith and hardness of heart tracks with Markan themes. And nevertheless, they themselves now get to return to the substance of Jesus’ original call at Galilee: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15).

Belief means baptism, and it’s a matter of salvation (Mark 16:16). For historic Christianity, Catholic or otherwise, faith and sacraments are never opposed. While some Christians separate them, seeing sacraments as exterior works opposed to faith as intellectual assent and an interior attitude, Christian faith is oriented to a living person, the risen and ascended Jesus Christ. The question then becomes, how do we relate to the risen and ascended Jesus Christ in whom we have faith?

Some Christians would answer faith alone, that we relate to Jesus through our hearts, somehow, but the historic and more robust answer is that we relate to Jesus also through our bodies, and that means sacraments. The sacraments mediate the most personal relationship with Jesus possible. Our baptism unites us with him metaphysically, ontologically (see Romans 6:1-4), and we and Christ live in each other (see Galatians 2:20). In the Eucharist, we eat him. That’s about as personal of a relationship as one can get.

Jesus now announces that signs will accompany believers on their evangelistic mission: exorcism, speaking in tongues, handling serpents, and drinking poison without harm (Mark 16:17-18). Exorcism and tongues are found throughout the New Testament, and impotent snakebites are found in Acts 28:3-6 and Luke 10:19. Drinking poison is not. Two items merit discussion.

First, for Mark, faith leads to signs like healing and exorcism; signs do not lead to faith. And yet here in the longer ending they do. On the other hand, we have seen throughout Mark that Jesus’ healings and exorcisms are not always done secretly; often Jesus’ healings generate glorification of God (Mark 2:12) and wonder (Mark 1:27) but also hostility (Mark 3:6). They also generate discipleship, as in the case of Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52). Perhaps here it’s best to say that the signs accompany believers in their mission because they do in fact believe first; they’re believers. And those who witness their signs will respond in varied ways as they do in the Mark’s Gospel.

Second, the signs aren’t random but indicate Jesus’ continuing liberation of the cosmos from sin, death, hell, and the Devil in the time of the Church. Indeed, Jesus tells his disciples in Mark 16:15 to preach the Gospel to the whole creation. Salvation isn’t merely saved souls flitting to heaven when individuals die; it’s the restoration and transformation of the whole created order, heaven and earth, visible and invisible.*1* When Mark’s Jesus exorcises and heals, he’s not simply providing temporal relief to the afflicted; these mighty signs reveal that Jesus is liberating the cosmos from its bondage to sin, death, hell, and the Devil.

Further, there are allegorical elements at play here. The word for serpent in Mark 16:18a is ophis, the same word used in Genesis 3 LXX for the satanic viper that threw the whole human race into sin (and indeed all of creation, as Adam was fashioned from the very stuff of earth, and Eve from him, Genesis 2:7, 21-22). The Church in its mission triumphs over the satanic serpent.

What’s more, the reference to drinking deadly things in Mark 16:18 may refer not simply to common poison. Not so many decades after the writing of Mark’s Gospel, St. Ignatius of Antioch advises the Trallians to “abstain from herbage of a different kind” than Jesus Christ, namely “heresy” (Trall. 6). For heretics “mix up Jesus Christ with their own poison, speaking things which are unworthy of credit, like those who administer a deadly drug in sweet wine” (Trall. 6). For Catholics, then, salvation is found not in the poison of heresy but in the sweet wine of the Eucharist, in which we drink in the Truth himself.

Above all, the signs that accompany the Church on its mission flow from Jesus, and he could exercise absolute sovereign authority not only because it was given to him but because of his total embrace of the cross. That’s the key: the Church flourishes and succeeds in mission to the extent it suffers the cross and so unites itself to Jesus.

Jesus is now ascended, as the crucified and risen Christ has been “taken up to heaven” and taken his rightful place “at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19). The ascended Jesus Christ powers the Church’s mission, for after his ascension the disciples “went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it” (Mark 16:20). Amen indeed! Mission is powered by the crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus Christ.

Why? Although often neglected, the ascension is a most important component of Christology. It’s not an afterthought or appendix. Rather, it completes the circle of the Son of God’s life, from preëxistence through incarnation to cross and resurrection, returning the Son to the total divine life of God in the Trinity from whence he came, but now with a body.

From his position in heaven at the right hand of the Father, Jesus Christ the Son can now be everywhere. The ascension grounds the doctrine of ubiquity. From heaven Jesus Christ can direct and power the Church’s mission, which the flow of Mark 16:19-20 suggests. And from heaven Jesus Christ’s risen, resurrected body can come down upon a million altars, as the Church carries forth its greatest sign, the Eucharist.

*1*See Romans 8:19-23: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

The image is from St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.

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