The Chapel of the Ascension: the Roof and the Ruins
The worst thing was the roof; the best things were the ruins. These were my thoughts as I stood at the Chapel of the Ascension on the summit of the Mount of Olives.
This has been a site of Christian meeting for centuries, the place where they gathered to commemorate the Ascension of Christ into heaven. Before this site was built, Christians gathered in the Eleona (Greek for “olive grove”), the Church built in the fourth century over the cave on the Mount of Olives where Christ sat with His four disciples, Peter, James, John, and Andrew, and spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world (see Mk. 13). Of this spacious and splendid Eleona church built over the cave, only fragments remain, near the so-called “Church of the Pater Noster.” But in the early fourth century, the Eleona flourished as the place where the Christians of Jerusalem met to commemorate the Ascension of Christ.
Later, a place was built nearby, at the present “Chapel of the Ascension,” and it was to this site that the pilgrim Egeria went later in the fourth century to commemorate the Ascension. In her day, it was not a church, but a mere circular colonnade at the summit of the Mount of Olives, a place to sit that was open to the sky. She called it “the Imbomen,” from the Greek “en bouno,” “on the hillock,” and it was a fairly modest structure. Later, a member of the Imperial family enlarged the Imbomen so that functioned as an actual church. It was destroyed by the Persians in the invasion of 614, and later still by the Muslims.
All that is left of that larger church now are the ruins, along with the original Imbomen structure, which stands about three meters by three meters. In Egeria’s day, in the fourth century, this structure was open to the sky, and one could stand in its center and look upward to heaven, and remember how Christ ascended to the Father. The Muslims have bricked up the spaces between the columns of the Imbomen, and put up a roof overtop it. They now charge a small fee for Christians to enter and look at its empty, unadorned interior.
There is precious little there to see. There is a mihrab, indicating the direction toward Mecca in the south wall so that Muslims can pray there. There is also a small stone frame in the floor, containing what purports to be one of Christ’s footprints before He ascended into heaven. This is unlikely to be authentic: the Scripture indicates that Christ ascended to heaven from over the Mount of Olives, as far as Bethany, not on its summit (Lk. 24:50). The Imbomen was doubtless built at its summit not because it marked the exact spot of the Ascension, but because it was easier to build on the hill’s summit than on its slope. As a Muslim shrine, there is now little tangible left there on which Christian piety can feed.
But, of course, Christians do not need tangible and physical adornment to feed their piety. The mere fact that Christ ascended to the Father from somewhere nearby this place is enough. What drew Egeria to the Imbomen and what caused later generations to erect a larger church around it was not the exactitude of Christ’s last footprint, but the glory of His Ascension from the Mount of Olives. From this hillock, the apostles looked up to heaven and stared and caught their last glimpse of their beloved Master before a cloud received Him from their sight, and He left time and space for eternity and a throne at the Father’s right hand.
The ruins of the Imperial church witness to our devotion to that Ascension, a devotion which continues without interruption to this present day. Whatever the present ruined state of the church, we still long to come and stand here and look upward to heaven and think of eternity. That is why the roof that the Muslims erected over the original Imbomen is so wrong: when we now stand in the chapel and look up, we do not see heaven, but the interior of an Islamic stone roof. Egeria saw the sky and eternity, and with faith beheld Christ seated on the throne of God. For us to see the sky now, we need to step out of the chapel and look up. But the look up to heaven is worth it, for it is from heaven that Christ will return, even as He once left us to ascend on high (Acts 1:11). Standing near the chapel among the ruins and looking up, I felt as if I was joining a large crowd of those who stood in this holy place before, and was happy to be among their number.