It was business as usual for most of us today. There was no special holiday to celebrate this great Festival of the Ascension, no particular traditions, and family gatherings as there are for many of us at Christmas and Easter. Most of us were probably not particularly conscious of Christ’s ascension to heaven as we went about our busy lives.
Although we gather here for one of the great festivals of the Christian year (which was of great significance to the Early Church), in many ways the Church as a whole has really lost its nerve about this incredible story that this festival focuses us upon, in the resurrected life of Jesus.
It is not just that we have been slightly embarrassed by the recent eccentricities of a group of well meaning Christians in America, who believed that their bodies were going to ascend (in the ‘Rapture’) into the heavens on the 21st of May, whilst everyone else was left behind to face the destruction of the earth. With or without the recent exploits of Harold Camping and his harbingers of Judgement Day, we have become largely hesitant to talk about the Ascension, because in our modern society the idea of someone simply lifting off the ground and disappearing behind the clouds, is probably more likely to conjure up images of Superman than a vision of the Son of God.
Fundamentally, we know that we live in a very different world from the world that our ancestors believed that they inhabited. In the ancient world people did not know that the world was round, they thought it was flat, and they presumed that it was multi layered. So they conceived of a universe in which the dead were below, and we were living in the middle, and the holy lived above.
Even though we might use those kinds of metaphors nowadays, our scientific world has flattened that universe out quite a lot – so that we now live largely within a one dimensional reality: the dimension that we can see and touch and experience, here and now. The whole pre-scientific concept (which is the world view in which this story of the ascension was written, and in which Jesus’ feet take off from the earth and in which he keeps going up and up until he reaches heaven) will be foreign to all those of us who have even a basic understanding of the universe, in which we live.
“Where did Jesus go?” people ask, as they hear this account of his ascension. “Up into the clouds? Through the ozone layer, stopping for oxygen on the way) past the moon? and where next?” 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 which is no longer flat, and in which nothing goes up skyward, except for rockets, and blood pressure and taxes? Or perhaps, if we are really honest here this evening, a more appropriate question might be to ask whether we need to make any 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 Saint Augustine, 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. But through his life(amongst people like you and me) Jesus not only shares a vision of God with us, we share the experience of humanity with him – the joys and the happiness, and the pain and the suffering.
Yes, at the heart of our faith we believe – amazing as it is – that the one beyond all creation, the source of all that we are, comes to us to share himself with us, and so that we might share our humanity with him; because Jesus not only brings an experience of God to us, but he embraces (through his life and his death) our experiences too. This flow of experience is going in two directions, not one.
Through the cross, Jesus comes to bear 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. Through his resurrection we see not only the vindication of all that he has shared with us, we see also a glimpse of the hope that our lives too (in him) will have an eternal consequence, in the eternal life of God’s love.
I have absolutely no idea what this story of the ascension of Christ points to in physical terms. I find it hard to imagine (although of course it may well be the case) that Jesus really did take off from the earth, and keep going up past the sun and the stars, but I am happy to concede that I may be wrong.
But this I do hold on to with all of the faith that I can muster: that as Christ ascends into the eternity of God’s love, we ascend with him. Our experiences ascend with him, into the experience, the heart of God. And so we can say that it is the ascension of Jesus which makes the incarnation concrete for us; because through the ascension the circle of the life of Jesus is made complete.
Jesus 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. Although we see him no longer, as his body here on earth, we remain in a mysterious and hope-filled unity with him, which enables us to be joined with him in the love of God.
The writers of our New Testament did not know about science in the way that we know about it now. And many in the Church have never been particularly worried about, whether the ascension is scientifically true. For most of us the ascension story directs us to something that can never be examined by a laboratory microscope.
The eternal hope that by faith we express in this ascension story, 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 being, the very reality of God for all eternity. What were once just our experiences, are now God’s experiences forever. God shares in our joy, and in our pain. In times of celebration and in times that feel unbearable; in those things that are most public in our lives, and those things that are most deeply hidden. In these experiences we are now never alone because God experiences them to.
We celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, because the story of the ascension contains within itself the profound hope 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. So we take heart today, that we are forever held in the love of God, a love that knows us, and experienced what we experience. And united in Christ, we pray that we may be so strengthened by the sacrament this evening, that we will live as people who shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God the father.
So I say to us this evening: be filled with joy, celebrate the feast, for where Christ our head has preceded us in glory into the very heart of our loving creator, there we, the body are called in hope to follow.