What do we make of the Ascension of Jesus?
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
The Feast of the Ascension, Pivotal Time and Our Daily Faith (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:3-13)
We are probably used to seeing icons that depict a kind of clunky literalism drawn from the Jesus story of Luke-Acts that suggest a Divine ‘beam me up Scotty!’ Such inadequate images make Jesus appear ludicrous, remote and far removed from our daily lives.
Perhaps this is why, we pew-sitting Westerners rarely allow the Ascension of Jesus much thought or attention. And it’s probably the same for most Western clergy.
But for many Christians, especially amongst the Orthodox Churches, the Feast of the Ascension remains the crown of all Christian festivals.
So, what do we do with the story of the Ascension theologically, spiritually or pastorally? In other words, how on earth is the Ascension of Jesus relevant to our daily lives? So much of Jesus’ teaching, his stories, his death and resurrection seem far more relevant to us today. In pandemic times, in our struggles with human frailty, we do not need the story of an absent God.
Luke is the only NT writer to speak of the Ascension which, he says, followed the period of forty days (Acts 1.3). We know from our practice of Lent and Advent as times of waiting and preparation that ‘Forty days’ is a sacred period, a period full of meaning. There is something both symbolic and real going on that invites us to reflect deeply. In Luke’s narrative, there is a period of time ‘after his passion’ (v. 3) in which resurrection appearances of Jesus ceased. The ‘forty days’ (as elsewhere in Scripture) was a period of learning, a time of repetition, a time to allow memories and reflections of their Lord’s ‘practice and teaching’ to arise (v1), and a time to reshape or recalibrate life and meaning.
In the Ascension story, Luke is reflecting back on the gathered Christian community of that time, as a pivotal time (‘now when they had come together’ v.6) and records the pivotal exchange between Jesus and his followers.
By ‘pivotal’ I mean that it is decisive and significant for the understanding of Jesus in the Christian faith and in our lives. This final encounter with Jesus helps us understand what lies ahead. These keys to our understanding are ‘eschatological’ – they point to a future shape for humanity, or a transformed manner of human existence. While the disciples still speak of overthrowing political powers and restoring rightful government (v.6b), Jesus has something far more profound in mind: the coming season of the Holy Spirit: ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses … to the end of the earth.’ (v.8)
The Feast of the Ascension is then, the celebration of a pivotal time and place. The Ascension actually reveals Jesus to be our ‘thin place;’ the thin place, where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin; where connection to that world seems possible and relevant to our lives and the longing for something ‘more’. Just as the veil or the curtain of the Temple that separated the holy and the mundane, was torn asunder at the death of Jesus, so the earthly and heavenly meet in Christ, the Ascended One (Hebrews 9:24), through the power of God’s Spirit, now promised to us.
Jesus Christ, this story of the Ascension proclaims, is the one who makes these thin places accessible, that is, makes God known in our midst, in our world, our daily life. That is what ‘to the ends of the earth’ (v.8) suggests. The Incarnate One does not leave us and ‘go to God’, but instead takes our humanity (our secret longings, hopes, shames, guilts, loves …) into the very heart of God.
We live in pivotal times and we do not know what lies ahead. The Ascended One calls and enables us to take this COVID time – and any time – as a ‘period of learning, a time of repetition’, a time of waiting, of lament, of reflection on the memories of our Lord’s ‘practice and teaching,’ a period to allow deep memories to arise and to reshape or recalibrate our life.
Prayer. The heavens are open wide since Jesus our brother, our Redeemer, has entered through the veil. We thank you for his new and living way, by which we join the unnumbered millions who are with you forever.
Praise to you our God; you answer prayer.