The paintings and artists’ rendering of the Ascension, found in our chapel and in many churches are wonderful.
These are beautiful images, but they’re problematic because science brought about what John A. T. Robinson called the “collapse of the three-decker universe,” a place where Jesus descends to a hell at the center of the earth and ascends to his father somewhere in the sky. Yet to miss the truth of the ascension for that reason is to fall victim to a false choice because, despite the surprising amount of religious art and iconography like this, the ascension isn’t primarily a literal, spatial event. N. T. Wright writes:
[L]et’s not be fooled . . . by the naïve literalism of certain paintings of the ascension, and for that matter certain hymns, which speak of Jesus going “to his home above the skies,” as though Jesus were some kind of primitive space-traveller. Heaven . . . is not a place thousands of miles up, or for that matter down, in our space, nor would it help us if it were. [Heaven] is God’s dimension of ordinary reality, the dimension which is normally hidden but which we penetrate mysteriously, or rather which penetrates us mysteriously, in prayer, in the scriptures, in the breaking of the bread.
The ascension is the story of Jesus, God become man to enter our world and our story, resurrected to a wholly new form of life, now mysteriously translated into that heaven of God’s ordinary reality. The story is so important to Luke that he tells it twice, at the end of his gospel (Luke 24) and again at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. But does it matter to us? Jesus ascended; so what? The reason I dig this feast day is because I contend that if the ascension never happened – if Jesus was born, lived, died and even rose from the dead, but did not ascend – Christianity wouldn’t have happened. Listen to this quote from a sermon by Tim Keller on the Ascension:
Just as it is ridiculous to build a beautiful house if nobody lives in it, and just as it is ridiculous and no use preparing this incredible, beautiful meal if nobody ever eats it, and just as it’s silly to build a . . . bomb to blast through a mountain [to] build a road . . . without a detonator, so the birth, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ are of no use without the ascension, for the ascension is the detonator for everything else Jesus Christ did. The Ascension is that which takes what Jesus Christ was and did on earth and releases it into the universe and into your lives with all of its healing power.
The Ascension is the detonator. That’s why it matters. And let me flesh that out by showing how the Ascension matters because it’s about presence, power and purpose.
First of all, presence – From Acts: “[A]s they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1.9b) We’ve talked since Easter about how the strangeness Jesus’ post-resurrection body. Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener; he could pass through locked doors; he could eat a fish, but it seemed he could vanish. But while Jesus’ resurrected body may have been mysterious, it was still a body, and a body can only be at one place at a time. An ascended Christ, though, isn’t bound by space and time; he’s everywhere, and nothing is outside his grasp.
The Ascension is also about power – “[Y]ou will receive power [after the Ascension] when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” (Acts 1.6-8a) St. Paul says the post-Ascension power in us is actually the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. (Eph. 1.18-20) Just think about what that means. There is a passage in John’s gospel I had always found curious and rather inscrutable until I read it in light of the Ascension. Jesus says “anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14.12-13) Jesus healed broken people; he fed the hungry; he set people free; but he always did it in one place because he was limited in space and time. But he ascended, and we have the same power he had, so we can do even greater things than Jesus did because now that power is diffused; not diluted, but in us it’s diffused into every city on every continent. When you pray and dream about what God can do through us in this neighborhood and in this city, why not dream big and pray big? Don’t ask “What can we do?” but “What can’t we do for the peace and flourishing of Boston?”
Last point: The ascension says Jesus is more present with us than if he still had a physical body; it gives us access to the same power Jesus had; and it also transforms our purpose. Acts 1.11: The angels said to the apostles “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” I think that sounds a little harsh. Translate the angel-speak into our vernacular, and what they said is: “What are you looking at? Why are you just standing there?” John Stott says:
There was something fundamentally anomalous about their gazing up into the sky when they had been commissioned to go the ends of the earth. It was the earth not the sky which was to be their preoccupation. Their calling was to be witnesses not stargazers. The vision they were to cultivate was not upwards in nostalgia to the heaven which had received Jesus, but outwards in compassion to a lost world which needed him.
The point of experiencing God is never just the experience itself; we don’t worship just for ourselves. Experiencing God changes us and makes God’s purpose our purpose. In short, we come away witnesses. The apostles saw the Ascension and went back into the world “like thunderbolts,” and so should we. We experience God in this place, we actually ascend to heaven at the Sursum Corda (we “lift our hearts up to the Lord”), we receive Jesus in bread and wine, and we’re driven back into the world like a shot to witness to what we’ve seen and to share in Jesus’ work. Jesus is still saving the world and renewing creation, and he still does it one person and one gracious act at a time. It’s just that now he sends us to do it for him. In fact, he sends us to do it as him. So when you give someone a cup of cold water, when you buy a hungry man a meal, when you stand shoulder-to-shoulder with someone who is oppressed, when you take some of a friend’s pain on your own shoulders, your hands are Christ’s hands; your feet are Christ’s feet carrying on his ministry in the world. We are the body of the ascended Christ, and the Holy Spirit gave us all gifts (charismata) to “flesh out” that body, to continue the incarnation of the redeeming God in our neighborhood, our workplaces, our city, our world. The Ascension detonated all Jesus did, made him present with us, gives us power and purpose.