Today in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and the eve of Memorial Day in the United States, we pause to commemorate and celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. It is perhaps too easy to pass over the affirmation Christians repeat so often, “I believe… that he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead.” In this age of space telescopes and exploration, it is too easy to dismiss the Ascension as merely a happy ending to the story of Jesus, like that of Hercules and other Greek heroes being translated into the starry heavens. It is also far too facile to scoff as did Yuri Gagarin, the first human into space, where he looked around from his capsule and declared to the delight of his Communist masters that there was no sign of any throne, much less someone sitting on it.
Gagarin was, of course, right. But not because he was looking in the wrong place but in the wrong way, much as the two sudden witnesses informed the stunned disciples. Heaven is not a place where myriads of singing worshipers stand around a throne swinging incense holders and throwing down their crowns around the glassy sea. Heaven is a way of being, a dimension of existence we only dimly understand if at all. Like so much of the deep mysteries of salvation, the Ascension expresses realities too deep for our minds to fathom. The closest we come is perhaps to poetry.
Metaphor is the native language of any profoundly poetic culture, not least that of Palestine at the time of Jesus. The depth and riches of imagery possess endless resources for enlarging our understanding without reducing mystery to a list of dates, names, “facts” and figures. Not surprisingly, from beginning to end, the Bible overflows with poetic imagery, a never-ending source for reflection. And so it is, perhaps especially, with the mystery of the Ascension. But the Ascension is more than metaphor.
Matthew, Mark, and John do not describe the Ascension, but remind us of Jesus’ promise to be with us until the end of time. According to Luke, the Ascension of the Lord lies between Easter and Pentecost, which celebrates the coming, the ‘parousia’ of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, into the minds and hearts of the early disciples and of all disciples. But that lies ahead. Here, like the disciples on the mountainside, we are left wondering about Jesus’ ascent into heaven. Did he go up into the sky? Or are we still looking in the wrong way, as the angels said [See Acts 1:1 11, Eph 1:17 23, Mt 28:16 20].
To begin with, the Ascension was never a crude, physical doctrine that asserted that Jesus was hanging around in the air, or on some other planet, much less out in space somewhere. Belief in the Ascension affirms the Cosmic Lordship, or we might say today, the Leadership, of Christ spiritually, but also sacramentally. It means that Jesus Christ, raised from the dead and exalted by God, has fully entered into the fundamental reality of Creation itself. Christ, St. Paul tells us is now co-extensive with the universe. God, he says, “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” [Eph. 1:22-23]. There is no “where” that Jesus Christ is not present.
This is the famous ‘pleroma’ passage, which one translation has as “the fullness of him who fills the universe in all its parts.” However we interpret it, clearly St Paul portrays Christ as universal Lord, majestic in triumph over every cosmic force, principle, and spiritual power. To celebrate the Ascension is to affirm that Jesus has become Lord of the Cosmos.
But the Ascension is also the Feast of Christ as Lord of Time, that is of history as lived time, not only past, but present and future: “Christ yesterday, today, and tomorrow” [Heb. 13:8].
There is more – and this is even more important. Paul writes to his Christian disciples at Ephesus that it is this same Christ Jesus who is the head, the source, of the Church, which is filled with his Spirit. And through that Spirit we are all members of the one body of Christ, the people of God. Christ is present to the world in the lives and works of those guided by and filled with his Spirit.
The meaning of the Ascension is the completion of the paschal mystery, the return of Jesus to the heart of God, the triumph of innocence over the guilt of the world, the final victory of life over death, of grace over sin. It is the culminating moment of the passage of Jesus to the Father, but also of salvation history itself. Yet the Ascension is also preparation and prelude, the necessary movement prior to the descent of the Spirit, the beginning of the transformation of the world’s history and its very structure, a spiritual transformation leading to universal jubilation.
Jesus has not gone anywhere. He is present everywhere, hidden from our sight only by clouds of inattention. Like Gagarin, we tend to look in the wrong places or we simply look wrongly. When we see with the eyes of faith, or, as St. Paul had it, “having the eyes of our hearts enlightened,” we see him in manifold ways. Simply put, there is nowhere in the universe where Jesus isn’t.
P.S. For a penetrating grasp of the meaning of the Ascension and Pentecost, the 1961 article in Worship magazine by Edward Schillebeeckx, “Ascension and Pentecost,” remains arguably peerless. (If you can find a copy in a library, it will repay many times over the effort to dig into so profound a meditation.)