If we had not moved our celebration of this great feast from Thursday to today most of us would probably not have been particularly conscious of Christ’s ascension to heaven as we went about our busy lives. There was no special holiday to celebrate this great festival, no particular traditions, and family gatherings as there are for many of us at Christmas and Easter. 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.
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 changed our understanding of the universe significantly – 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 today, 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. 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 today, that we will live as people who truly embody that reality – of eternal hope, and eternal trust in the creator and redeemer of all things. Because the other reality of our ascension celebrations is that God in Jesus has now passed the baton on to us. To shine as Jesus did when he was in the world.
At the beginning of our great Easter celebrations we lit a fire outside this Church building – at our Easter Vigil – a sign for all of our neighbours to see of the light of Christ’s resurrected life in the world. From that fire we lit this Easter paschal candle which has burned brightly throughout this Easter season, symbolising Christ’s close presence amongst us, as we have reflected upon his resurrection encounters with his disciples each weekend. At the end of our Eucharist today, the Easter candle will be extinguished, as a reminder that Christ has ascended into heaven. And I have to say to you that I find the extinguishing of the paschal candle rather a sad experience. Our paschal candle will no longer be lit, except when we baptise children and adults into the Body of Christ, and when we commend those who have died in Christ to God’s everlasting love. But before the Easter candle is put out we will light candles from it ourselves, as a very visual and physical reminder that that light – the light of Christ – has now been transferred to us. Christ’s light still shines, but it shines through this Church… through us.
One of the Early Church fathers reminds us that Jesus came to earth without leaving heaven, and now returns through the ascension to heaven without leaving earth. That wisdom points to the coming of the Holy Spirit that we await at Pentecost. It is also points to the commission placed upon us all, to live as Christ for others. I say to you on this first of our four weekends of celebration: 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, and between now and then, we are nourished by the sacraments to shine in his way, in his name, as a light in the world.
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 those who know the story 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.”
Alleluia! Christ has ascended to his throne in glory. It is now time for us to shine as his light in the world, to the glory of God the Father.