and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1)
My guess is that very few of us have any particular relationship to the Feast of the Ascension. Christmas and the nativity we can perhaps get our minds around, as the story of God coming among us; and also perhaps Easter and the resurrection, as the celebration of the power of life over death. But Jesus’ ascension into heaven? What might that be about?
So I suppose it goes without saying that compared to all the other Christian holy days, Ascension is the most lacking in any traditions or expectations—most churches simply let it go by unobserved. And as far as I know, no one has yet thought of a way to commercialize the Ascension: there are no Ascension displays in the stores, no Ascensiontide decorations, no cheap trinkets for sale. The Ascension is simply overlooked and largely ignored.
Yet in the rehearsal of the main events of Jesus’ life that every Eucharistic prayer contains, the Ascension is almost always mentioned. (As our prayer today will put it, “We thank you for his cross and rising again; we take courage from his ascension; we look for his coming in glory” or “Recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer you these gifts.”) And clearly, the creed that we recite together puts Jesus’ ascension into the list of the essential facts of his life. It’s as if, once Jesus returns from the dead, we have to find some one to get him off-stage so the story can end. Jesus has to go somewhere, so why not just have him fly up to heaven?
But there’s the rub: having Jesus ascend into the sky as a kind of first astronaut in space, as the gospels do, is for us modern people a singularly unsatisfying and even slightly preposterous conclusion to the story. So what are we to make of it, if anything?
When my teenage son took American History, he had as a teacher an African American man named Alfred Meadows, Jr. Mr. Meadows was a very demanding teacher (he told the class at its first meeting that his favorite letter of the alphabet is “F”). And fortunately for my son, Mr. Meadows taught a version of American history that was very much more inclusive than what I had in school.
You see, Mr. Meadows was always pushing his students toward having what he called “a depth of knowledge,” and if he ever thought his students had given a shallow answer to a question or written a superficial essay, he would make the comment, “son (miss), you lack a depth of knowledge—you haven’t done your due diligence.”
Now, what I want to suggest about the Ascension, is that through it we discover that God has acquired a depth of knowledge about human life from which we can take great satisfaction. In Jesus, God has done his due diligence.
Let me explain.
One way to think about Jesus’ death on the cross, is that through it he has descended into the very depths of human experience—taking upon himself nothing less than death itself. It is not just that he died, but that in dying the violent death that he did, he has left no pain or misery of humankind untouched.
Then in the resurrection, we discover that even the worst that life (and death) have to offer, which seem to have overwhelmed Jesus on the cross, cannot in fact extinguish the power of the love which Jesus embodied. That much probably sounds familiar.
So the Ascension takes all this one step further. Having gathered the whole of human experience into himself, Jesus now brings it all into the heart of the Father. Through that reunification of Jesus with the divine origin of his being, God becomes fully and completely identified with the full range of who we are as human beings, because the Father receives it from the Son, whose mission it was to embrace it all without exception, gathering it into himself.
That is the “depth of knowledge” which God has of us: in Jesus, there is no dimension of who we are, and no aspect of what we experience (whether our greatest joys or our most troubling sorrows) that is unknown.
The secrets of our past from which we try to hide? They are known.
The sadness and grief of the loss of a loved one? They are known.
The joy of the birth of a child, or the satisfaction of a great accomplishment? They are known.
The fear of an illness, or the anxiety of aging? They are known.
And not only are they known in God’s depth of knowledge, but in accepting the son back into his presence, the Father shows an absolute commitment to us and to this world, because that is who the Son now is—the one who in his life, death and resurrection has fully embraced this world and us within in.
To grasp the meaning of the Ascension, then, we have to move beyond the literal image of Jesus rising into heaven (as familiar as it is in countless Baroque altarpieces), to understanding the Ascension as signifying that Jesus has returned spiritually to the God from whom he came—but now bearing our humanity up with him. And God has received it from him to be love, nurtured, and attended to.
The implication is that heaven and earth are no longer separate, no longer opposites, but are placed on a continuum which is marked by the continuum of the divine and human natures of Jesus himself: there is no point at which you can draw a line and say, “That is divine, and that is human.” They are intertwined.
So if Jesus has established this continuum between us and God, then what we are called to do is to follow him by traversing it on our own spiritual journey. And how do we do that? Well, in the same way that Jesus did: by taking this world absolutely seriously, recognizing that there is no one who does not have a future with God (just as Jesus did), and so must be regarded with the greatest reverence and respect. In the presentation of our humanity to God that Jesus makes in his ascension, we learn that there are no surplus people, no one whose needs or claims we can safely ignore. As Archbishop Rowan Williams remarked in a sermon for Ascension Day, this deep appreciation for the inalienable dignity of humanity is “why Christians are going to be a nuisance in any imaginable human society.” We are given a respect for one another that simply cannot be suppressed, and will not be ignored. That is the “depth of knowledge” of one another which our faith in Christ gives us.
So you might think of the ascension as Jesus blazing a trail for us as human beings to God, showing us that the way to God is through our commitment to one another. In his ascension, “Jesus points us to the God he calls Father, and enables us to go on our journey toward God the Father as he himself did, by the path of commitment to the world.”1 As we sing in one of the Ascension hymns today:
Thou hast raised our human nature on the clouds to God’s right hand:
There we sit in heavenly places, there with thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels; Man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in thine ascension, we by faith behold our own.2
© Joseph Britton 2016
1 Rowan Williams, “Ascension Day,” in A Ray of Darkness (Cowley, 1995), 70.
2 Christopher Wordsworth, “See the Conqueror mounts in triumph,” Hymnal 1982 #215.