The Vicar writes...
On Thursday 9th May the Church celebrated the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord. We remember how, forty days after his resurrection and in the presence of his disciples, Jesus ascended through the clouds into heaven where he now reigns as ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’.
Yet, in many ways, the Ascension is very much the poor relation of the great festivals of the Church. It certainly doesn’t capture the imagination of popular culture as Christmas and Easter do. Perhaps this is because it’s always celebrated on a Thursday or isn’t marked by a national holiday or commercial razzmatazz. But more likely it’s because it celebrates an event we find difficult to comprehend in our modern age of scientific and technological advance. For the Biblical picture of the risen Jesus ascending into the clouds we reflect on this month is drawn from a very different understanding of the universe to ours.
The Gospel writers saw creation as a three tiered universe - the earth, with heaven above and hell below. So the Ascension of Jesus made the utmost sense to them as they proclaimed him as high king of heaven. The readings we listen to and the hymns that we sing all speak of Jesus going up. In the same way we still use the age-old imagery when we talk of heaven as being up there.
When the Russian cosmonaut and first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, returned from his two hour flight around the earth in April 1961 one of the first things he is reputed to have said was that he did not see God up there. His claim came as no surprise to the Church or to the atheist state he served.
For, to limit the Ascension to the ancient world understanding of the universe is to miss the point completely. What we celebrate this month is the mystery that when Jesus ascended he did not go to reign in the endless vacuum that is deep space. He returned to the glory that was his before he took our human flesh. For the Christian today, heaven is thought of theologically rather than geographically, as the dwelling place of God.
St. Luke’s description of the ascension is summed up in the phrase, ‘a cloud received him from their sight.’ Here is not just any cloud, but the ‘Cloud of glory’ - what the Old Testament refers to as the Shekinah. The Shekinah always represented the presence, the majesty and the mystery of God. It led the Israelites through the wilderness to the Promised Land. It filled the tent of meeting, the tabernacle, and was the glory of God in the temple. We read of this Shekinah cloud at the mystery of the Transfiguration, when the disciples were given a glimpse of Jesus’ divinity on the holy mountain. At the Ascension it received the risen Christ into glory. It released him from the constraints of his earthly ministry and celebrates his promise, ‘Lo I am with you always to the close of the age.’
The Ascension will always remain a mystery of our faith. It may well use imagery drawn from an ancient world view of the cosmos, but if it celebrates anything it proclaims the risen Christ not so much as being up there but with us always. It celebrates too how Christ has taken our humanity into heaven, to the right hand of God. The Ascension is also intensely political. It proclaims Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords; that his reign of love and truth is supreme over all earthly authority and power; that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow in heaven, on earth and under the earth.
Those present at the Ascension made their way back to Jerusalem and to the first ever Church fellowship. We are told that they spent their time in prayer as they looked to continuing Jesus’ work in the world. And when the day of Pentecost came they were filled with the promised power from on high and went out to change the world, transforming human lives for the good in Christ’s name.
The Ascension might well be the poor relation of the great Christian festivals but it celebrates how the risen Christ is not remote or beyond our sight - we can know him as we make our Christian pilgrimage through life. He has taken our humanity to the throne of God and we, like his first disciples, are called to be his body in the world. Until he comes again to make all things new we have his Ascension promise, ‘Lo, I am with you always to the close of the age.’
With every blessing,