Mount of Olives – Ascension

Tuesday 1st July 2014

Since the course finished yesterday at lunchtime, yesterday and today most of the participants in the Bible Formation Programme at Ecce Homo left for home or other destinations. I will be staying another week to relax, to re-visit some sites and to see some other sites that I have not yet visited. Today was an example of the latter.

I climbed up the Mount of Olives and visited several churches associated with the Ascension of Jesus Christ to heaven where he is seated at the right hand of the Father in glory. This event marks the end of his appearances to the disciples, but he continues to be present in the Spirit, in the Word of scripture, in the sacraments, in the authoritative teaching of the apostles handed down in the church, in his body, the community of Christian believers, but most of all, wherever there is charity and love.

Jesus’ ascension is related in several places in the New Testament. The briefest account is in Mark’s Gospel:

The Ascension of Jesus
19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.(Mk 16:19-20)

The site, or more accurately, sites, of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives/Mount of the Ascension and their history is very chequered. The early Christians gathered at a cave to mark Christ’s ascension, possibly out of security concerns, as they were persona non grata in the Roman Empire. After Christianity became established under the Emperor Constantine, a Byzantine Church was built on or near the site. This was destroyed by the Persians but then rebuilt. The Muslim period saw further destruction and rebuilding. The church was then rebuilt under the Crusaders, but again fell into Muslim hands and was used as a mosque, until in a gesture of goodwill, the Ottomans built a mosque nearby for their congregation so that the Christians could resume pilgrimage to the church unimpeded. The present Church/Chapel of the Ascension is in the grounds of the mosque and is supervised by Muslims who allow pilgrims in for a nominal fee.

There is a longer account of the Ascension at the very end of the Gospel of Luke, finishing his account of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus:

The Ascension of Jesus
50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Lk 24:50-51)

The “Church/Chapel of the Ascension” that stands on the site today is enclosed within walls in a compound adjacent to the mosque. It is a very simple domed structure. The original was an open dome, but higher walls and closed dome were added later, as you can guess from the following photos:

Chapel of the Ascension inside walled compound on the Mount of Olives

Chapel of the Ascension inside walled compound on the Mount of Olives


Luke provides another account of the Ascension in his Acts of the Apostles, where it acts as a prelude to his account of how, in the power of the Spirit of the risen Christ, the Apostles continue the mission of Jesus:

The Ascension of Jesus
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:6-11)

Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives

Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives


Inside the Chapel/Church of the Assumption is a mihrab, pointing east in direction of Mecca, used to orient Muslims in prayer. This was constructed when the building was used as a mosque.
Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, showing the mihrab for Muslim prayer direction.

Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, showing the mihrab for Muslim prayer direction.


Set in the floor of the chapel is a rock, said to show the footprint of Jesus as he ascended to heavan, his last stand on earth, so to speak!
Rock said to have a "footprint" of Jesus, in the Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives

Rock said to have a “footprint” of Jesus, in the Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives


I am very sceptical of the claim to a footprint in the rock!!! It parallels a similar Muslim claim that the Dome of the Rock contains the footprint of the Prophet Muhammad from his ascension to heaven after his mystical Night Journey to Jerusalem. The proximity of these claims to footprints makes me very suspicious! I also read that the rock on which the other footprint was impressed was removed to the Dome of the Rock, which only serves to confirm my suspicions even more!!

Besides, the point of the Ascension of Christ is that it marks the end of his physical appearances to his disciples, so it is hardly likely to be marked by a physical sign which would keep their focus fixed on earth!!

I am not belittling the Ascension. In fact, I have read that the Ascension is perhaps underplayed in our Christian practice. It gets overshadowed by being in between the seemingly more spectacular events of the Resurrection on one hand and Pentecost on the other. But the Ascension is in fact the highpoint of our salvation. The Word who assumed a human nature in the incarnation is not only risen but also ascended to heaven such that the human nature of Christ is now united fully with the Father through the Spirit. In crude terms, one of us human beings has made it to heaven! The first of us have made it to heaven (the second human being and also the first human person who made it to heaven [Jesus Christ is a divine person who assumed a human nature in the incarnation, so it one divine person with a divine nature and a human nature] is the Virgin Mary, assumed body and soul into heaven, as explained in a previous post, also a cause of consolation and joy for us pilgrim sojourners on our journey towards heaven). The human being whom the Word assumed, our brother in humanity, has achieved our final destination, union with God. So all of us humans, through Christ’s union in our humanity, are now partakers in his divine nature through the Spirit, and look forward to a similar consummation in heaven. So the Ascension is literally the high point of the drama of our salvation. It is cheapened by being reduced to footprints in rocks and here or there claims that tie it to our mundane existence. What matters is that Christ who shares our humanity is now united with the Father and we now share in his divinity through the Spirit, groaning as we wait for final communion in the age to come, in the new heavens and the new earth.

For more information and pictures of the Church of the Ascension see:
http://www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/jerusalem-chapel-of-ascension
http://www.biblewalks.com/Sites/AscensionChurch.html
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chapel_of_the_Ascension_(Jerusalem)

But after ascending these spiritual and theological heights, let us come back to earth again for a moment. There is another contender for the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. It is a Russian Orthodox Convent of the Ascension of Our Lord. The site shares a similar chequered history as the above site, of construction and destruction of churches with the succession of different empires and rulers. From Jerusalem, the site stands out clearly on the horizon of the Mount of Olives, particularly because of its tower, at present surrounded by scaffolding as it is being renovated.
image
The church has beautiful icons in the Russian Orthodox tradition.

The interior of the Russian Orthodox Convent of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, showing the anastasis behind which the sacred mysteries to be performed.  There are mosaic icons of the four evangelists in the corners of the dome and other mosaics and paintings of icons decorating the walls and ceiling of the church.

The interior of the Russian Orthodox Convent of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, showing the anastasis behind which the sacred mysteries to be performed. There are mosaic icons of the four evangelists in the corners of the dome and other mosaics and paintings of icons decorating the walls and ceiling of the church.


Icon of the Christ Ascending into Heaven, on the ceiling of the dome in the Russian Orthodox Convent of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives

Icon of the Christ Ascending into Heaven, on the ceiling of the dome in the Russian Orthodox Convent of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives


Close up of the Mosaic of Christ Ascending into heaven, on the ceiling of the dome in the Russian Orthodox Convent of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives

Close up of the Mosaic of Christ Ascending into heaven, on the ceiling of the dome in the Russian Orthodox Convent of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives


In a separate chapel within the Russian compound, tradition also lays claim to finding the burial site of the head of John the Baptist. Again, my skepticism kicks in here, because there are several sites with claims to the head of John the Baptist, including one in Rome and one in Damascus.

It reminds me of the joke about a skeptic like me disputing the claim of a site possessing such a venerable relic as the head of John the Baptist, referring to other similar claimants, and the guide replied guilelessly without missing a blink, “but this is the head of John the Baptist as a young man!?!?!”

For more detailed information and photos of the Russian Orthodox Convent of the Assumption see:
http://www.biblewalks.com/Sites/RussianAscensionChurch.html
http://www.jerusalem-mission.org/convent_ascension.html

There is a third Church of the Assumption on the Mount of Olives!!! It is the Evangelical Church of the Ascension. However, to my relief, as far as I could see, it makes no claims to being the site of the event, but simply commemorates the event.

The church is part of a complex which served as a hospice for German pilgrims, military headquarters for the German-Turkish General Staff, then the British High Commissioner during the mandate, then a hospital, then a military hospital, then a hospital for Palestinian refugees, and is now an oncology hospital.

The church stands on the highest point of Jerusalem, 850 metres above sea-level, almost 1300 metres above the Dead Sea. There is a 45 meter high tower, with 223 steps (Yes, I climbed them, and I counted them!!!) which provides spectacular panoramic views all around.

View to the south-east from the top of the tower of the Evangelical Church of the Ascension, with the controversial wall separating the territory and people of the Palestinian authority.  I do not know the precise location of Bethany, the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, but I do know that it is on this far side of the Mount of Olives and on the other side of the wall.

View to the south-east from the top of the tower of the Evangelical Church of the Ascension, with the controversial wall separating the territory and people of the Palestinian authority. I do not know the precise location of Bethany, the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, but I do know that it is on this far side of the Mount of Olives and on the other side of the wall.


View to the south-west from the top of the tower of the Evangelical Church of the Ascension, with a panoramic view of the Old City of Jerusalem and the new city on the horizon in the background.

View to the south-west from the top of the tower of the Evangelical Church of the Ascension, with a panoramic view of the Old City of Jerusalem and the new city on the horizon in the background.


The interior is fairly sparse – no statues in this Protestant church with its emphasis on the Word of Scripture!
The interior of the Evangelical Church of the Ascension

The interior of the Evangelical Church of the Ascension


The ceilings have beautiful mosaics of scenes from the life of Christ on and near this mountain (e.g. with Martha and Mary at nearby Bethany, the raising of Lazarus, the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, with of course, the Ascension as the centre piece.
Mosaic of Christ as Pantokrator (all-powerful ruler), seated on his throne in heaven, with the Alpha and Omega in his hand, surrounded by symbols of the four evangelists on the main axes and the twelve apostles; Evangelical Church of the Ascension

Mosaic of Christ as Pantokrator (all-powerful ruler), seated on his throne in heaven, with the Alpha and Omega in his hand, surrounded by symbols of the four evangelists on the main axes and the twelve apostles; Evangelical Church of the Ascension


Mosaic of Christ Ascending into Heaven, above the sanctuary of the Evangelical Church of the Ascension on the summit of the Mount of Olives

Mosaic of Christ Ascending into Heaven, above the sanctuary of the Evangelical Church of the Ascension on the summit of the Mount of Olives


Close-up of the mosaic of Christ Ascending into Heaven, above the sanctuary of the Evangelical Church of the Ascension on the summit of the Mount of Olives

Close-up of the mosaic of Christ Ascending into Heaven, above the sanctuary of the Evangelical Church of the Ascension on the summit of the Mount of Olives


For more information and photos of the Evangelical Church of the Assumption and Augusta Victoria see:
http://allaboutjerusalem.com/article/evangelical-church-ascension
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augusta_Victoria_Hospital

I visited a couple of other places on the Mount of Olives, including the Church of the Pater Noster (Our Father) and a lookout over Jerusalem. I also found the grave of a Muslim Sufi saint, however, the gatekeeper had gone off to the Dome of the Rock for prayers so I could not get int. It was quite hot today and there was a bit of a haze, so the views of the city were not so clear. Also, it was hot work climbing up the Mount of Olives, and climbing up the tower, and walking/climbing to the different sites, so I was glad to get back to Ecce Homo in the late afternoon and have a rest.

Shalom, Peace, Salaam!!!

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