“Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” These are the words of an angel in Acts 1:11, which are read on Ascension Sunday.
It is an epilogue of the gospel story, written by the author of the gospel of Luke. Jesus has just said a few parting words, begun to fly up into the sky lifted by a cloud, with the apostles left behind staring up, mouths agape. The text says two men in white robes appeared before them; one of them spoke the words I have just quoted.
To me, this is a very moving scene that expresses the bereavement of the apostles at finding themselves without Jesus. Of course, he would come back; it would not be long.
Indeed, Jesus had spoken of imminent change on a number of occasions. “Truly I say to you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” (Matthew 24:34) However, Jesus’ parting words that day were: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.“ (Acts 1:7)
So long as there was fierce persecution, the Jewish eschatology (or thinking about last things) found in the book of Revelations (and Daniel) held sway among Christians who expected, perhaps out of their dire need to hope, that Christ’s return was imminent.
The Christians were a persecuted minority, gathering in private homes, circulating letters and documents among themselves at great risk, living lives so quietly devoid of external religious expression that some thought they were atheists.
They gathered on Sunday, the day the Lord rose, for the Supper of the Lord, variously called by the Greek words for Eucharist (Eukaristia, thanksgiving) or Eulogy (Eulogion, remembrance)—it was both.
This was a quick, quiet, unsentimental and secret ceremony—only those baptized, who were immediately confirmed, were allowed in. To the modern observer it might resemble our sparsely attended, early morning Eucharist or Mass celebrated on a work day. The only major differences were the setting (not in a church building) and the absence of biblical readings or sermon. The opening hymnody, readings and sermon that a modern churchgoer would associate with the Eucharist service were reserved for another, more catechetical (or educational) evening gathering during the week, called the Synaxis.
The best scholars tell us that there was a striking absence of any devotional practice that could arouse pious subjectivity. This squares with the Jewish conceptions held by the apostles, for whom there was no “spirituality” that did not have a concrete and material expression. Notably, it was Gnosticism, the first major heresy, that pulled towards precisely the kind of spirit-matter duality that later spurred individual “spiritual” feelings and a whole universe of sometimes misleading piety.
Christians spoke of the practical aspects of living their faith as merely “The Way.” An outline of this way of life is found in The Didache (Gr. for “Teaching”), an early summary or catechism written in the mid to late 1st century. Its existence was known by reference for centuries—some thought it belonged in the New Testament—but its full text was lost until a copy was discovered in 1873.
The men and women of the Early Church did not run the risks of torture and death merely for moving experiences. They did so because they believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, or Christ, who announced the beginning of God’s rule and set forth the way to live in God’s order.
(A full text of The Didache can be read by clicking the new page tab at the top of this blog, titled Reference.)