So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards 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
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. – Luke 24:50-53
Of all the teachings of the Christian churches, nothing receives less attention than the claim that, after the resurrection but before the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Jesus ascended to heaven. I’ve yet to hear a sermon or read a theological tract that talked about this event in any way that made sense. I receive small consolation from the fact that the same author gave two very different accounts, first in Luke then in Acts, of the event in question. In general, the story is the same: Jesus took the disciples out to a private place, taught them a bit, then was assumed in the clouds in to heaven. The devil, as always, is in the details. In Luke, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon them prior to their going out and opens them to the Scriptures’s teachings about his life, death, and resurrection. In Acts, they just go to a high place, and up-up-up he goes, then some angels appear and ask them why they’re staring at the sky.
So, here’s the thing. Did Jesus actually float up in the sky until disappearing from sight? This, as the Roman Catholic doctrine of “Assumption” tells us, is what happened to Jesus’s mother, Mary. It’s also what happened to the prophet Elijah, who did not die, but had a heavenly chariot come and pick him up. For a long time, this was used to explain the cosmos – the vault of the sky with the planets and fixed stars was covered by a dome, above lived God, with Jesus at the right hand of God, and all the angels. Earth was fixed below, and beneath that was, of course, hell. Except, of course, this tiered cosmos, as depicted in late medieval and early Renaissance works, was, like so much religious art from the period, not so much an explanation or demonstration as it was an allegorical depiction of the place of humanity in the cosmos, using the stories from the Bible as illustrations (and often folklore as well; in some of the woodcuts, especially from the early 16th century, the air above the earth and beneath the dome of heaven is often filled with demons trying desperately to snag the souls of the dead as they tried to make their way to heaven; this was something the Martin Luther, in particular, believed whole-heartedly – the air around us is literally abounding in demons and devils ready to snatch us to the pit, even if we have died in the grace of the Church). Picture-thinking such as this misses the dynamic, subtle, and often complicated cosmological thinking of the Church Fathers and great doctors of the church; it also tends to make literal what is happening in the story of the Ascension.
Yet, doesn’t that beg a question that is kind of important? For some reason, we Christians have no problem proclaiming that Jesus was dead – he had ceased to be; he had joined the choir eternal; he was an ex-human – yet when it comes to the whole ascension thingy, we mutter as we turn our heads and try to change the subject. We take the resurrection literally, after all. Three days dead, then there he is, all living, walking, talking, breaking bread, showing up in locked rooms. Jesus was dead and now he’s alive never to die again. That’s our declaration of the mystery of faith – Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again – and at the heart of it lies a mystery. A dead man came back to life, yet not life as we know it. New life. As St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians, anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. So this life of the risen Jesus is a new thing. Again, we have no problem proclaiming this; it is the heart of the mission and ministry of the church after all, baptizing in the name of the Trinity so we can be about the work of bringing about this New Creation that has already broken through in the resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus floating up in the sky, though?
Can we get back to helping people, saving lives, you know . . . mission stuff?
Except, the doctrine of the Ascension is necessary, if for no other reason to explain why Jesus, who we all claim is alive, isn’t walking around among us. He’s alive, he’s just not here, you know, in the flesh. The Ascension of Christ is part of the mystery of the passion – it is part of the New Creation we proclaim: Jesus, killed by Roman authorities, is not only alive, but seated in glory, the judge of all creatures who once judged him. To declare our faith in the New Creation, to proclaim the Church the Body of Christ present in the world in mission and pastoral, prophetic ministry to our hurting world, we must affirm that Jesus, alive again, is yet not longer with us in the flesh. Did he float upward in the sky, the clouds finally obscuring him as he past through the dome to the true heavenly realm? I’m not prepared to get all that literal about it. Yet, Jesus is no longer with us in the flesh, although his presence is a constant source of comfort through the love that is the Holy Spirit, the Advocate and Comforter, the Third Person of the Triune God who created the world and loved it enough to save it through the only act of Divine intervention that matters. To declare in faith that Jesus Christ ascended to heaven is only to declare our faith that the New Creation inaugurated with his resurrection from the dead continues, overseen by the loving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with we human beings baptized in the blood and raised anew in the white cloak of that First Day, are those who are to be about the work of this New Creation. If that means that I have to affirm, like it or not, that Jesus floated up through the sky, well, then I’ll affirm that, although I don’t think it matters all that much how we understand it. I declare in faith that Jesus, raised once for all from the dead, is now seated with the Father, coming to judge both the living and the dead. If you want to get in to details about what “ascension” means, go right ahead, because that’s kind of missing the point in my book. I’ll affirm it, regardless of what it actually “means” in terms of a picture of Jesus floating up, or simply fading from sight, or whatever.
Jesus is alive, he is not here in body, but we the Church are to be that Body, working to bring the New Creation to our broken, sinful, hurting world. Let’s argue about ascension while children die and the poor go hungry, shall we? Or get busy working together to do a new thing – alleviate suffering, bring life where once there was only death, to bring community to the lonely. That’s who we are to be.