There is no special holiday to celebrate the Ascension, as there is at Christmas and Easter. It was work as usual for most of us last Thursday – probably many of us were not particularly conscious of Christ’s ascension to heaven as we went about our busy lives.
In many ways the Church as a whole (not just us here in Murrurundi) has really lost its nerve about this incredible story in the life of Jesus. We do not talk about it much, because in our modern society it seems very strange to imagine someone simply lifting off the ground and disappearing behind the clouds. It conjures up images of superman doesn’t it!
In the ancient world people believed that the universe was multi- layered, people did not know the world was round, they thought it was flat. So they conceived of a universe in which the dead were below, and we were living in the middle, and the holy lived above. Our scientific world has flattened that universe out quite a lot – we live in a one dimensional world, and the problem is that the one dimension which we have kept is the dimension of our present reality. By and large in our society, we have lost the dimensions of spirituality and morality that were so important to those who lived before us. The whole pre-scientific concept (which is the world view in which this story was written) in which Jesus’ feet take off from the earth and he keeps going up and up until he reaches heaven is very foreign to us, because it defies our modern understanding of the universe.
Where did Jesus go? people ask. Up into the clouds? Through the ozone layer, past the moon? and where next? It is important that we live in the real world when we approach stories like the ascension; because we know that our universe is not as people believed it was in the past, and we have to read the stories of scripture in the light of what science has taught us about the world which we inhabit.
So, we can embrace a baby being born into the poverty of a manger; we can share in the pain of an innocent man hanging on the cross; we can connect with the hope which springs out of the new life of the resurrection – but how do we make sense of the ascension of Christ, in a world in which nothing goes up skyward, except for rockets, and house prices and taxes? Or perhaps a more appropriate question is to ask whether we need to make sense of it at all.
Saint Augustine, one of the great teachers of the faith, responded to that kind of a question like this: The Feast of the Ascension he said, “is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together… For unless the Saviour has ascended into heaven, his nativity would have come to nothing… and his passion would have borne no fruit for us, and his most holy resurrection would have been useless.” For Augustine, then, belief in the ascension of Jesus is not an optional extra to be appended to our faith. The ascension is the culmination of all that Jesus has done for us.
In the story of the birth of Jesus we come face to face with the reality that God loves us so much that he comes to be amongst us, so that we can truly say that God has dwelt amongst us. God brings himself to us so that we can see and experience what God is like through Jesus. Through his life(amongst people like you and me) Jesus not only shares a vision of God with others, he experiences what we experience – the joys and happiness, and the pain and suffering. That culminates in the ultimate suffering of the cross, as Jesus bears what we will all ultimately have to bear, the journey to death, and the risk that after our death we will be forgotten, and that all that we have stood for will mean nothing to anyone. Jesus not only brings an experience of God to us, but he embraces and comes to understand our experiences too. This man who is God, comes to understand truly what it means to be human. This flow of experience is going in two directions, not one.
Through his resurrection we see not only the vindication of all that he has shared with us, through his life and his teachings, we see also for us a glimpse of the hope that our lives too (in him) will be eternal. And it is the ascension of Jesus which makes this concrete for us; because through the ascension the circle of the life of Jesus is made complete. He comes to earth as God-made-man to share an experience of God with us, and in so doing he experiences our lives too, so that when he is ascended he takes all of the experiences of humanity with him back into the God head, into the holy of holies. As Christ ascends, we ascend with him. Our experiences ascend with him, into the heart of God.
The writers of our New Testament did not know about science, and the Church has never been particularly worried about ,whether the ascension is scientifically true. Just like the creation narratives at the start of the Bible, which do not speak literally about how things came to be in a scientific way, so the ascension story directs us to something much more important. Not the scientific reality, but the eternal truth. And the eternal truth is that God loves us so much that he came to share himself with us, and he allowed us to share ourselves with him. And now those experiences are held together in the very heart, the very experiences, the very reality of God for all eternity.
Saint Paul tried to express this in his letter to the Philippians, when he quotes an early Church hymn, in these words: “Though Christ was in the form of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:6-11)
We celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, because the story of the ascension contains within itself the profound truth of our faith, that we are for all eternity, held in the heart of God. As Christ has ascended, so humanity has ascended with him, never to be estranged from God again. But there is more to this than simply what Jesus has done, because the ascension demands our response as well.
How will others get to know of God’s saving grace and the power and the love of Christ now that Jesus has ascended and is no longer living on the earth? Christ has no other hands now but ours. Through us, his disciples, Jesus brings comfort to the sick and the dying, he gives friendship to the lonely and the stranger. Through us his followers, he comes into the hearts of others when we grasp windows of opportunity to share what it means to follow Christ.
Now that Jesus has ascended our hands are his hands. When the disciples were gazing up into the sky to catch a final glimpse of Jesus two angels told them Jesus wilt return. We are in the time between the ascension and Jesus’ return. The Kingdom of God has come but it is not yet here in all its fullness and completeness. As we wait for God’s Kingdom to come when Christ returns, we have been given the task of carrying on Christ’s ministry. Those first disciples did not just stand there looking upwards forever, they went and got on with the task which Jesus had left them with.
An imaginative story tells of the ascension of Jesus to heaven after his time on earth. Even in heaven he bore the marks of his earthly pilgrimage with its cruel cross and painful death. After he arrived there, the angel Gabriel approached him and said, “Master, you suffered terribly down there. Do they know and appreciate how much you loved them and what you did for them?” Jesus replied, “No, not yet. Right now only a handful of people in Palestine know.”
But Gabriel was perplexed. He asked, “then how will people learn of what have you done and your love for them?” Jesus said, “I have asked Peter, James, John, and a few more friends to tell others about me. Those who are told will tell others in turn. And my story will be spread to the farthest reaches of the globe. Ultimately, all of humankind will have heard it.”
Gabriel frowned and looked rather sceptical. He knew what poor stuff humans were made of. After a while he said to Jesus, “yes, but what if Peter and James and John grow weary? What if the people who come after them forget? What if they just fail to tell others? What is your back-up plan?”
Jesus answered, “There is no other plan.”