What do we make of the story of the ascension?
Matthew and John don’t include the story, nor does Mark. Luke mentions the ascension in his gospel and in Acts. He writes that forty days after his resurrection, Jesus “was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight,”
It is interesting to note that Jesus “came down” to earth in the incarnation. He “goes up” to heaven in the ascension. And after Jesus “goes up”, the Spirit of God will “come down” on the believers at Pentecost.
I use the quotation marks to suggest that the biblical writers may have intended for subsequent readers to understand their language of “up” and “down” as poetic and metaphorical.
Outside of the bible, there are a few references to the ascension. We see the resurgence of it in the late second century when Christians confessed the ascension in the Apostles’ Creed: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
We also have St. Augustine, who notes that the Feast of the Ascension was widely observed long before his time. It is hardly surprising at all that Augustine made such observations. During his lifetime, people witnessed incredible art and architecture honouring the ascension of Jesus. We learn that in 384CE, an exact place on the Mount of Olives was venerated. In 390, a wealthy Roman woman named Poimenia financed the construction of the Chapel of the Ascension. Fast forward a little bit more we have the painting of the ascension by Andrea Mantegna. Mantegna’s work contrasts heaven “above” and earth “below,” with Jesus hovering in between, surrounded by winged angels. All of this suggests that our history is rich with art, creed and architecture celebrating the ascension of Jesus.
Keith Ward, the Oxford theologian and ordained Anglican priest, struggles with the ascension narrative in his book The Big Questions in Science and Religion. Instead of rejecting the story as literary fiction, Ward takes it seriously. He starts by pointing out the clash of cosmologies that we experience with the ascension story. Ward notes, “We now know that, if [Jesus] began ascending two thousand years ago, he would not yet have left the Milky Way (unless he attained warp speed).”
Ward goes on to suggest that we measure the validity of these stories based on our current knowledge and understanding of the world. He helpfully points out that our ideas today about space and time are different from those in Luke’s day. In Paul’s writing, for example, we notice a three-tier universe in Philippians 2:10: “in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”
The ancient Jewish community divided the world into heaven, earth, and the underworld. They understood the sky as a dome resting on foundations with doors and windows that let in the rain. God lived above the sky, shrouded in cloud and majesty. The world was seen as a disk floating on the waters. The earth was the only tangible domain – everything beyond and below was considered unknowable. The underworld (Sheol) was a prison from which no one returned. One either went “up” to heaven or went “down” to Sheol.
It is tempting to ridicule the archaic cosmology of Luke with the modernized cosmology of contemporary physics; however, it is not as easy as it seems. And, according to Ward it might not help much either. How can we expect Luke to have known modern cosmology? In a certain way, he went along with the best possible science of the day. He used the best cosmology of his day — Ptolemy’s geocentric view of the world, which reigned for a thousand years until Copernicus demonstrated that it was terribly wrong in 1543.
But then things are not so simple. What if today’s cosmologies turn out to be fundamentally flawed two thousand years from now, if not much sooner? In the Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein, Mario Livio argues against privileging any cosmology, whether ancient or modern, as a final picture of the world for all time. Our knowledge is fundamentally incomplete. The mysterious black hole is not merely out there in the universe. But, that same mystery also clouds our capacity to understand the world in all its fulness. We don’t know what we don’t know. Our technologies are only as good as our capacity to develop them or even use them. Our strategies are only as good as the assumptions we put into them. What if our understanding of three-dimensional space – length, width, height – turns out to be undeveloped in the end? (Stephen Hawkins M-Theory with 11 dimensions comes to mind)
The story of ascension is indeed a product of a particular time and culture and cosmology. It was written within the limitations of an imperfect cosmology, which has since been superseded by our own not-perfect cosmology. But it is also true that the stories of our faith tradition contain many timeless pearls of wisdom. They speak to our deep yearnings. They become our guide in the search for meaning and purpose. They invite us to enter a dialogue with the forebearers of our faith. They remind us that we don’t stand aloof from our past. Instead, we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.
The story of ascension is part of our historic faith. It liberates Jesus from being present in the realm of space and time to be present in the realm of eternity. In the ascension, Jesus did not merely move to a new location. He did not suddenly get a new postal address. Ascension is less a change in location and more a change in the state of being. Jesus is nowhere, but everywhere. The experience of Christ is not limited by time and space and history and institution. Instead, the presence of Christ is a universal reality. Christ is experienced whenever two or three gathers in prayer and worship. But Christ is also present when we incarnate his teachings in our lives, in our community, and our relationships.
It seems fitting to conclude this reflection with the words of Teresa of Avila
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”