Today, as the Holy Land finds itself again embroiled in savage and indiscriminate slaughter, many Christians are celebrating the Ascension of Jesus. Formerly known as Ascension Thursday, it was moved to the following Sunday by the Conference of Bishops for pastoral reasons. It signals the culminating event of the Easter cycle next Sunday, the Feast of Pentecost. In some respects, it is a difficult subject for a homily because the scriptural accounts are definitely a scramble of variant texts. This may be appropriate for such an astounding claim, much like the various descriptions of the appearances of Jesus after the Resurrection. Mark’s gospel is the most elusive of all, as the brief reference appears in the “second ending” of his gospel, a text that seems to have been added and altered years after its composition. It is also tantalizing short.
That is a fundamentally a matter for scripture scholars to worry over. From very early times, Christians simply affirmed “We 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.” These three events seem to have been linked from the very earliest times: the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Return of Jesus in glory. We live between the second and third of these events in the world to whom the good news of salvation was to be preached. That world often seems not to care and may resist, but that is reason enough for Mark to add his postscript about surviving potentially lethal obstacles. For the Spirit of Jesus will be with his followers, his preachers, confirming their message.
We are left, however, wondering like the disciples on that hillside outside Jerusalem, what does it all mean? Where did Jesus go? Somewhere up in the sky, beyond the clouds?
Centuries ago, perhaps even decades ago, the idea would not have seemed absurd. Heaven didn’t seem so far away. Thanks to the reach of today’s incredibly powerful telescopes and space probes, we now live in a much vaster universe, bounded not by clouds and even the daily routines of the sun and moon, but galaxies and mind-boggling galaxies of galaxies. For anyone alert to the challenge of finding heaven, it is more important than ever to understand clearly what Christians believe and what that belief means.
A good place to start is by paying attention to the exasperated question of the two otherworldly figures who appear rather suddenly in Luke’s account: “Why do you stand here looking up at the skies?” God dwells in Light, and that realm is not a place, it is everywhere.
The Ascension does not mean that Jesus went into orbit like some ancient astronaut. Luke says, simply, “a cloud hid him from their sight.” Rather, the Ascension affirms the cosmic sovereignty of Christ. It means that Jesus, raised from the dead and exalted by God, has fully entered into the fundamental reality of Creation itself. The author of the letter to the Ephesians makes the astounding claim that Jesus is now co-extensive with the universe itself. 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].
This is the famous ‘pleroma’ (fullness, completeness) passage, which one translation has as “the fullness of him who fills the universe in all its parts.” However we interpret it, clearly the author portrays Christ as universal Lord, majestic in triumph over every cosmic force and principle, over the angels and every spiritual power. To celebrate the Ascension is to affirm that Jesus has become Lord of the Cosmos.
As I have said before on this great feast (and I haven’t found any reason to change my mind), 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 Christ 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 away anywhere. He is present everywhere, hidden from our sight only by clouds of inattention. Like those bewildered disciples on the hillside, 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 a myriad of ways, as the poet insists,
I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice-and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.