I was set a challenge for Ascension Day, by someone from one of the Churches in which I serve: If you are so sure that the resurrection was physical, surely it must follow that the ascension is also physical? If that’s the case, then where is Jesus? Do you believe, like the ancient New Testament writers, that there is a three-story cosmos – with heaven at the top, earth in the middle, and hell at the bottom?
My first response was the usual place of sanctuary for a desperate priest: I said that it is a mystery. Then I laughed at myself and my own answer, because so much untruth, conjecture and evil can be shrouded in such an excuse; so on its own, ‘mystery’ will not do. Will not do at all.
Actually, Ascension, if it is anything at all, is banal. It is not special, it is not extraordinary, it is certainly not supernatural. Such categories allow us to keep Christ at a distance, as a myth we like to believe in when it suits. If Ascension is anything at all, it really must belong to the physical realm, even if it is a different order of physicality than is known before resurrection. Reality does not break when it takes place, only our own limited view of what we consider to be real and fantasy.
The early twentieth century New Testament theologian, Rudolf Bultmann, was quite right to say that God does not live in the top floor of a three story cosmos, and Jesus does not live up there with him. To use this as a reason to discredit Ascension as mere myth, though, is to reject what is obviously ancient (a three-story cosmos) and what stretches us to consider the divine and the possibility of life beyond life and death (ascension).
Look at the text: Jesus did not put on his Superman kit and jump up to heaven. Rather, there was some kind of lifting up by, and enfolding into, what looked like a cloud. Something physical was taking place, but what it was was beyond the categories known to the witnesses. They saw something, but they did not have the vocabulary and experience at their disposal to adequately describe what was going on.
Similar to witnessing two people falling in love, we use our own reference points to attempt to describe what is, in reality, beyond the categories at our disposal.
We cannot go back to know what this was, we cannot go and excavate the scene. All we have is a description that comes at the end, and at the beginning, of a set of narratives that speak of this Jesus of Nazareth who is God-amongst-us. The Ascension is the end of one set of those narratives – the life, death, resurrection and divine enfolding of that man – and the beginning of the next set of narratives – about those who were so empowered by him that they set out to change the world. Which they did.
Ascension does not break reality, but it does break our view of reality, it does break us. How could it not? The physical Christ re-enters the Godhead, just as God always has been, yet somehow changed by that human face that has experienced the joy and trauma of human living – that human face is now present amidst the divine dance of Father, Son and Spirit. Humanity’s view of God is changed, because Ascension demonstrates that humanity is now part of that dance. This absolute, solid world of absolute, solid ideals is made relative before a greater, broader, more enduring reality which appears to be beyond those senses we trust so much.
In many ways, this doctrine that is often made to look so ridiculous in art (with feet dangling from a roof) and liturgy (talk of Jesus trumping to heaven) is, in many ways, when the gospel get really serious:
That thing about God becoming man that we celebrate around tress and lights; that gruesome cross before which we weep and shudder and fall silent; that bright, sunny morning we celebrate with chocolate and roast lamb; they all become a bit.. well, too real for comfort.
That Jesus really is God-amongst-us, God-for-us, God-leading-us.
This Church really is a bunch of people who seek to be God’s own people, leading all into life.
It’s not a hobby, the church. It’s not a distraction. It’s not a tradition. This Christ is God, is Lord and Servant, is Lord and liberator, and the Ascension of Christ into God, of the human nature into the divine nature, changes everything. It is one of the few things, perhaps the only thing, that has the power to break us to such a degree that we fall to our knees.
Christ is God, the human is shown to be one with the divine, and this Christ shouts to his people: “Follow me.”