Yesterday (May 17,2012) was Ascension Day. I hope this post finds you sufficiently recovered from all your Ascension Day festivities at church and home. They can be exhausting, I know.
What? You didn’t celebrate Ascension Day?
Actually I know you didn’t. Even on Facebook yesterday (and a fair number of my ‘friends’ are pastors and church geeks who actually pay attention to such things) Ascension Day didn’t merit a single mention. If you wish to learn a little more about Ascension Day, this Wikipedia entry and this one are interesting.
If you don’t know much, or anything, about Ascension Day you could make a good guess about it just by the name and its timing- after Easter and before Pentecost. Ascension Day marks the time Jesus bodily ascended into heaven. If you are part of a church which regularly recites one of the creeds, you affirm the ascension each time you say the creed. “He (Jesus) ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty”.
Here is the ascension as described in “Acts”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” He replied,”It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power then the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven. The Acts of the Apostles 1:6-11. See also Luke 24:50-53 and John 20:11-18.
If you stop and think about it, which is what the observance of Ascension Day asks us to do, the bodily ascension into heaven raises some interesting questions for us. Where, exactly, is Jesus? And why don’t we see him? Practically speaking many of us think about Jesus as a disembodied being, despite what we say in the Creeds and even when we affirm the bodily resurrection. We talk about Jesus being present with us, both when “two or three are gathered” and individually as our personal Savior. For those of us in sacramental traditions, we believe Jesus is really present at the Lord’s Supper. The difficulty is, of course, we don’t see Jesus, incarnate, embodied, in the flesh. So as a practical matter we tend to think of Jesus more as spirit than physical being.
Remembering the ascension helps us counter that understandable tendency.
Theologian N. T. Wright has been very helpful in my thinking about the ascension and where Jesus is.
It is that the ascension demands that we think differently about how the whole cosmos is, so to speak, put together and that we also think differently about the church and about salvation. … Basically, heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space and matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation. And the point about heaven is twofold. First, heaven relates to earth tangentially so that the one who is in heaven can be present simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth: the ascension therefore means that Jesus is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on the earth to find him. Second, heaven is, as it were, the control room for earth; it is the CEO’s office, the place from which instructions are given. “All authority is given to me,” said Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “in heaven and on earth.” Surprised by Hope, 110-111.
Here is a bit more from Wright about heaven.
…[W]hen the Bible speaks of heaven and earth it is not talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum or about a nonphysical world contrasted with a physical one but about two different kinds of what we call space, two different kinds of what we call matter, and also quite possibly (though this does not necessarily follow from the other two) two different kinds of what we call time. We post-Enlightenment Westerners are such wretched flatlanders. Although New Age thinkers, and indeed quite a lot of contemporary novelists, are quite capable of taking us into other parallel worlds, spaces, and times, we retreat into our rationalistic closed-system universe as soon as we think about Jesus. C.S. Lewis of course did a great job in the Narnia stories and elsewhere of imagining how two world could relate and interlock. But the generation that grew up knowing its way around Narnia does not usually know how to make the transition from a children’s story to the real world of grown-up Christian devotion and theology….
What we are encouraged to grasp precisely through the ascension itself is that God’s space and ours- heaven and earth, in other words- are, though very different, not far away from one another. … God’s space and ours interlock and intersect in a whole variety of ways even while they retain, for the moment at least, their separate and distinct identities and roles. One day, … they will be joined in a quite new way, open and visible to one another, married together forever. Surprised by Hope, 115-116
And now, Wright on Jesus’ presence and absence.
The Trinity is precisely a way of recognizing and celebrating the fact of the human being Jesus of Nazareth as distinct from while still identified with God the Father, on the one hand (he didn’t just “go back to being God again” after his earthly life), and the Spirit, on the other hand (the Jesus who is near us and with us by the Spirit remains the Jesus who is other than us). …The ascension thus speaks of the Jesus who remains truly human and hence in an important sense absent from us while in another equally important sense present to us in a new way. At this point the Holy Spirit and the sacraments become enormously important since they are precisely the means by which Jesus is present. Surprised by Hope 113-114
Well, we’ve read quite a lot of theology just now. Perhaps your head is spinning a bit. Perhaps you think its a good thing that the protestant church doesn’t make a bigger celebration of the ascension than we do! But seriously, it is worth the effort to think this though seriously. Otherwise we can over spiritualize our faith. Jesus’ relationship with and to the world matters. He is the ruler, not us. It is important for us to remember who is in charge and the kind of ruler he is. Ascension day helps us remember that.
I’d like to know, what do you think?