Experiencing the Ascension in Jerusalem

Placing the Ascension of the Lord Jesus on the summit of the Mount of Olives is not just a fulfillment of religious traditions, but a profound testament to the significance of this mountain. The history and geography of the Holy Land illuminate why the Mount of Olives is the custodian of the memory of this pivotal event in our salvation.

The Scriptures tell us of two places where our Lord ascended. After the Resurrection, the Risen Lord met his disciples in Galilee (Matthew 28:16). The Acts of the Apostles situates the site of the Ascension at the summit of the Mount of Olives in the east of Jerusalem (Acts of the Apostles 1, 9-12).

The northern part of the Mount of Olives is known by several names: “The hunter’s vineyard” in Arabic, KARM ES SAYAD and “Little Galilee” in Greek tradition. The words VIRI GALILAEI (in Latin: men of Galilee) are an allusion to the words addressed to the apostles in Acts 1:11: “People of Galilee, why do you stand there looking up to heaven?

So why the Mount of Olives and not Mount Zion?

The choice of the Mount of Olives was no accident. Jesus appropriated the whole of human history to bring it to perfection. The Mount of Olives is the guardian of Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions.

The Mount of Olives was called HAR HAMISHKHA, ‘Mount of Unction’ during the Second Temple, possibly in memory of the anointing of Solomon, crowned king in an improvised ceremony held in a hurry near the spring of Gihôn in the city of David. The way this ceremony is recounted in the first book of Kings foreshadows Jesus’ solemn entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: “They (Zadok the Priest, Nathan the Prophet…) put Solomon on King David’s mule and went down to Gihon. Then Zadok, the priest, took the horn of oil from the Tent and anointed Solomon; the horn was blown, and all the people shouted: “Long live King Solomon! And the people played the flute and rejoiced with great joy and shouted as though the earth would burst” (1 Kings 1:38-40). The same thing will happen on Palm Sunday: Jesus will come from Bethphage, on the other side of the Mount of Olives, riding on a colt; descending the Mount, he will cross the Kidron valley to go up the Temple Mount and enter Jerusalem. Then the people accompanied him, shouting joyfully, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…”. (Mark 11, 9)

The “Mount of Unction” is named for the olive oil produced there. Olives from this mountain were used to make oil, which was used to anoint kings and prophets and for liturgical celebrations in the Temple. Jesus is God’s anointed par excellence. It is only natural that he should ascend to heaven, where he is seated at the right hand of God the Father on the Mount of Unction.

Many Jews wanted to be buried on the western side of the Mount of Olives. Believing that being buried opposite the Temple Mount meant resting on safe ground for the Last Judgement. Indeed, the prophet Zechariah foretold that on that day, history would be fulfilled: “The feet of the Lord will rest on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem to the east. Then the Lord my God will come, and all the saints with him” (Zechariah 14:4-5). Zechariah’s prophecy speaks of “the feet of the Lord”. Today, in the Sanctuary of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, there is a stone bearing the footprints of Jesus as he ascended to heaven.

The importance of the Mount of Olives is also recognised in the Muslim tradition. In Sura 1, verse 6 mentions the straight path: “Lead us in the straight path”. The term “straight path” is called “sirat” and has two meanings, depending on the era. In ancient Islam, it meant the right path or the path to be followed. In medieval Islam, it was given added spatial significance: the right path was associated with the bridge that would link the Mount of Olives to the Mount of the Temple when the Messiah comes. Here, the Muslim tradition is similar to the Jewish tradition. Still, with a twist: at the Last Judgement, all the believers of ALLAH buried on the Mount of Olives will be resurrected and have to cross a bridge built over seven arches linking it to the Temple Mount. The “righteous” will cross the bridge without difficulty, while the “unrighteous” will fall into the Kidron. And so, there are Muslim graves in the Kidron Valley, in the shadow of the ramparts close to the esplanade of the Al Aqsa Mosque, around the Golden Gate, the gate through which, according to Jewish tradition, the Messiah must pass to enter the Temple and pronounce judgement.

Today, the Sanctuary of the Ascension is managed and guarded by Muslims. It is an exceptional site, as it is used as a mosque and, depending on the occasion, as a Christian church. Inside the mosque is the stone bearing the footprints of Jesus as he ascended to heaven, as mentioned above. This is how Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions unite on Mount Olives.

The Feast of the Ascension today

Jesus chose a mountain with olive trees, a mountain outside Jerusalem just a short distance from the holy city. He did not choose Mount Zion, which is in the city. He kept the symbol of the olive tree, a tree typical of the Mediterranean basin, a tree God gave to his people together with the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 6, 10-12). The olive tree is like the tree that “bears fruit in its season, and its leaves never die” (Psalm 1, 3). It is also the symbol of the righteous and peace since it is always green and bears fruit only after careful, patient nurturing, in other words, after a long period of peace. According to Jewish tradition, the olive branch brought to Noah’s Ark by the dove after the flood waters had receded came from the Mount of Unction.

Olive oil, the fruit of the olive tree and human labour, is food, perfume, medicine and essential for lighting lamps. This rich symbolism is abundantly repeated in the sacraments of the Church (CCC nos. 1293 and 695), which bring us into the realities beyond. Therein lies the spirituality of the Ascension. Once sanctified by the presence and, above all, the blessing of Christ, our earthly realities are lifted up to heaven: “He who was taken from you, the same Jesus, will come just as you saw him go up to heaven” (Acts 1:11).

Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe that the Messiah will return. In response to a question from a participant in the session, here at Saint Anne’s in Jerusalem, to a rabbi about the coming of the Messiah, the rabbi replied: “When the Messiah comes, we will ask him if this is the first time he has come into the world, or if it is the second time.

By: Grégoire Milombo, M.Afr.

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