At the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, there is a wonderful Chapel that focuses on the Ascension. I remember the first time I saw it, wondering, “What does this have to do with the Ascension?” And then I looked up. You don’t forget the first time you see a pair of plastic feet sticking out of the ceiling. It reminded me of the time my father’s leg came through the ceiling in our house. It’s all very silly, really.
But then, S Luke’s account is all rather silly, too. He’s the only Gospel writer to take this on: SS Matthew, Mark and John simply hold resurrection and exaltation together. So why does S Luke go this step further, and speak of the ascension of Christ into heaven?
I once heard a rather enthusiastic and well-seasoned preacher explain that it was ludicrous to imagine Jesus flying into the air, as the text itself says that Jesus was “merely engulfed into the clouds.”
Because that isn’t ludicrous. As if heaven is on a particular cloud, as in some Tom and Jerry cartoon.
I rather like Hans Kung’s argument that it is likely that S Luke was attempting to put an end to the many spurious Jesus-sightings that are likely to have followed the resurrection claims.
One can imagine the fun and profit that was to be had in claiming to see Jesus, and sell on the things in which he appeared or touched. So S Luke turns to the church and says, “Stop seeing Jesus in your pomegranates. He was here for a bit and has now gone to heaven. Let’s just get on with what Jesus started.” (Not an exact translation.)
Whilst that makes sense, I can’t help feeling that there’s more to it than that.
You’ll find a fair bit of this heavenly assumption lark in the ancient world. It was pretty common for military and political leaders to have some kind of assumption narrative to seal their glory. Equally, in the Jewish writings of the Old Testament we can see some examples of this, not least with Elijah and the chariot of fire. So S Luke appears to have been drawing on imagery with which his audience would have been familiar in order to underscore the early Christian statement of faith that “Jesus is Lord”.
Put bluntly, the Ascension of Christ is not about geography, nor is it a lesson in physics or meteorology. So let’s not take this literally. The Ascension of Christ is theology: it is saying something absolutely central to Christian faith. And it is something that all of the Gospel writers and early church authors said in unison – only S Luke decided it would be more fun to put it into a story with clouds and flying.
It is saying that Christ is not merely some charismatic preacher who has cheated crucifixion, but the Lord through whom the power of death has been conquered, and who now sits on the right hand of God as the power that is above, and precedes, all earthly powers. The Ascension is the claim that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that this has made all the difference.
So, yes, S Luke’s telling of the Ascension seems rather amusing to our highly-developed, Modern selves. Yes, the Walsingham Chapel of the Ascension is a bit silly, twee and gaudy. But perhaps they are so easily mocked because they are so challenging to us, who are a little too proud of our wealth and power to bow the knee. Perhaps it’s easier to laugh at them than it is to come to terms with the faith of which they speak.
And this silly faith does speak.
It speaks to the dictators and corrupt bureaucrats of this world, because there will be judgment. It speaks to those who suffer and can find no release, because there will be healing. It speaks to the greedy, because they will lose everything that matters to them. It speaks to the prejudiced, the unforgiven and unforgiving, because there will be reconciliation. It speaks to the fearful, because there will be light.
‘And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”’ (Rev. 21:1-5a)