Is the ascension a fictional story of something that couldn’t have happened, written by people in an age when they still thought the earth was flat, of no relevance to us today? Or is it – although impossible to explain in modern rational and scientific terms – a literal truth?
The trouble with both those positions – while held by many – is that it all seems irrelevant to most people’s lives, and the ordinary, and difficult, situations and problems affecting us; our hopes, our fears, and our concerns do not even feature, let alone find an answer or a response.
I’d like to suggest a middle way somewhere between the two extreme points of view, which is to look for what truths the story has to tell us, rather than insulting our intelligence or rubbishing the Bible. Does the ascension have anything to say to thinking Christians, with the concerns of the 21st century on their shoulders.
The author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, they are one and the same person, vividly describes the ascension of Jesus. The disciples have forty days with the Risen Christ and then he departs, he ascends into heaven. The Gospel of Luke records that they were filled with joy and spent all their time in the Temple giving thanks to God. But I wonder if there is room for a serious theological message in the departure of the Jesus?
The story of the ascension cannot be just literal history, because heaven is not physically up in the sky. Ever since Copernicus and Galileo revolutionised our understanding of the cosmos, it’s been impossible to think of heaven as up in the sky and hell underground. If our concept of heaven wasn’t challenged already, it certainly was with the advent of space travel. As one communist cosmonaut once remarked sarcastically, he couldn’t see God out of his spaceship window. By contrast, the late Billy Graham said that heaven is ‘as real as Los Angeles, London, Algiers or Boston,’ and that it is a place which is ‘1600 miles long, 1600 miles wide and 1600 miles high.’ Billy Graham may have found that a helpful way to think of heaven, but I do not, and I suspect many of you do not either.
In 1999, Pope John Paul II upset some Christians when he said: In the context of Revelation, we know that the ‘heaven’ or ‘happiness’ in which we will find ourselves is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. Heaven, said the late pope, is not an abstraction, but neither is it a place. This story of the ascension, then, is a story of faith, skilfully crafted to convey a significant message. That message is simple, and it is no wonder that the gospel records that the disciples were full of joy. Ascension is the lifting up of the human Christ into the Being of God, into the consciousness of God, into God as he is in himself. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian, said of the Church, “They wander on earth and live in heaven. They are poor and yet they have all they want”. The simple message of the Ascension is that we are destined, eventually, for personal union and communion with the Mystery we call God.
Even so, the departure of Jesus might have left the disciples feeling bereaved. Often joys have a sting that comes with them. What greater cause for a sting than the departure of Jesus: had Jesus not brought the disciples more joy than they could possibly imagine?
German theologian Karl Rahner described the Feast of the Ascension as ‘the festival of holy pain.’ He said, ‘He has departed from us. It is frightening that we feel so little pain about this….we should be inconsolable at the fact of his remoteness from us.’ At the outset of his ministry, Jesus said: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people. In his ministry in Galilee, Jerusalem, and other places that is what Jesus did. But that isn’t the world we live in or, at the very least, there are only glimpses of it. In one sense, Jesus is not with us. Ascension is the festival of holy pain.
We live in a God-starved world. Despite what Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry, there are far too many people oppressed and broken-hearted, living as captives, mourning in ruin and devastation. The poor are still with us in great, even greater, numbers. Many of the lame, whether their limbs have been ravaged by disease or land mines or bullets, cannot walk. Many of the blind cannot see. And millions of children starve to death every year. The prophecy which Jesus read out in his local synagogue two thousand years ago has not come true, at least not yet.
I know that the Church is the Body of Christ. I know that next week we will be celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit. Today I want to celebrate with great joy the message of Ascension that our humanity is taken up into the consciousness of God: we are made for a personal relationship with the Eternal, the Infinite, the Mystery, that we call God. We wander on earth and we live in heaven, but we are not there yet. Waiting for heaven, though, is not an excuse for staying on the sidelines.
Our choice is to remain on the sidelines or to live as Jesus lived, but there is really only one choice for us to make. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Christ, God with us. At Easter, we celebrate the Risen Christ in our midst. It is right for us to do that. But the Ascension affords us the opportunity not to wallow in the presence of God, the presence of Jesus, but to reflect on his absence. We live between the beginning and the end, when the prophecy of Jesus has not yet come true but can do so. Jesus’ absence is a call to decision, to action, and away from the sidelines. Do we stand idly looking up to heaven or do we set about the work of Jesus? In Matthew’s gospel Jesus asks each one of us if we have fed the hungry, visited the sick, and welcomed the strangers. In a sense, Jesus is not here. Now is our chance.