Two weeks ago, it was Ascension, but I was technofasting then. So here are my thoughts this year on Ascension…
There is no reason to disbelieve the Ascension in the face of modern astronomy and physics. This is the thing that’s been nagging at me about the Ascension since a comment someone made at Christmastide that everyone’s friend J S Spong says that if Jesus really ascended, he’d still be going up.
And then on the Sunday following Ascension, the minister where I was worshipping carefully passed over talking about the literalness of the Ascension to talk about its meaning for our Christian lives today (fair enough) — which prompted someone at coffee hour to comment that the feet in the ceiling of the Chapel of the Ascension in Walsingham was the height of fundamentalism. Perhaps she meant that spatially.
First, re Walsingham. It is art. Even those who reject a literal, historical reading of the Ascension will have to admit that a pair of feet is a pretty impressive way of making the point. Jesus floating in the air is a visual representation of his leave-taking of this sphere of being. To put a pair of feet in the ceiling of a chapel is a vivid, potent way of making tangible this piece of the Christian story.*
Moving on, then, to Spong and other suchlike folks. There is no reason to assume that if the Ascension occurred, Jesus just kept on going. None of us believes that Heaven is ‘somewhere up there’. If the Kingdom of the Heavens is in our midst, then it is another sphere of being that overlaps with ours. Even in Dante’s Paradiso, you cannot reach the Primum Mobile and the Throne Room of Heaven simply by going up. It is a spiritual realm. For Jesus to get there, he will have to have crossed the boundary between the physical and the spiritual worlds, into the realm reserved for the numinous and luminous.
Therefore, I have no difficulty imagining Jesus having ascended. Indeed, it makes the most sense to me. Had he simply vanished from sight, the Apostles may have expected him to come back a few days later. In the Forty Days after Easter, he did have a tendency to do odd things, like vanish into thin air or walk through walls.** Therefore, to make his point and make it dramatically, he ascended from the Apostles. And then, when the cloud covered him (as in Acts 1), he took his glorified, human body to the Throne Room of Heaven.
It’s not that hard to imagine. It’s not that hard to believe.
The physics of the Ascension have nothing to do with modern vs. pre-modern, of Ptolemaic astronomy vs. Copernican astronomy vs. Einstein.
Finally, if perhaps you still aren’t sure, there is always C S Lewis’ remarks in Miracles, where he observes that, since Heaven is not ‘up there’, but possibly imagined as being such by a first-century fisherman, when Jesus did actually have his final leavetaking of this Earth in his physical body, the only way the disciples could describe it was by him ascending, regardless of what actually went on.
At the end of the day, what the Ascension means, rather than what precisely occurred that day, is that Christ returned to the Father so that he could be with us always (to the very end of the age). This is what matters most, not the mechanics of a miracle. Pope St. Leo the Great, my dear friend, says this:
Truly it was a great and indescribable source of rejoicing when, in the sight of the heavenly multitudes, the nature of our human race ascended over the dignity of all heavenly creatures, to pass the angelic orders and to be raised beyond the heights of archangels. In its ascension it did not stop at any other height until this same nature was received at the seat of the eternal Father, to be associated on the throne of the glory of that One to whose nature it was joined in the Son.
Since the Ascension of Christ is our elevation, and since, where the glory of the Head has preceded us, there hope for the body is also invited, let us exult, dearly beloved, with worthy joy and be glad with a holy thanksgiving. Today we are established not only as possessors of Paradise, but we have even penetrated the heights of the heavens in Christ, prepared more fully for it through the indescribable grace of Christ which we had lost through the ill will of the devil. Those whom the violent enemy threw down from the happiness of our first dwelling, the Son of God has placed, incorporated within himself, at the right hand of the Father, the Son of God who lives and reigns with God the Father Almighty and with the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen. (Sermon 1 on the Ascension [Serm. 73]), trans. Freeland and Conway for Fathers of the Church).
This is the mystical vision of true orthodoxy. God became man so that man might become God. Therein lies the true message and mystery of the Ascension.
*This relates to my frustrations with people who think that Handel’s Creation/Die Schöpfung is ‘naïve’ because it takes Genesis literally. And, given the mediaeval propensity toward allegory, does everyone actually think that they all believed in a literal Garden when scribes made illuminations? To take a powerful story that carries with it spiritual weight and express it artistically is not the same as, say, this website.
**This is because he was more real, not less. As a more substantial being, a wall was as nothing to his glorified flesh. C S Lewis observes this somewhere, but I picked it up from the Rev. George Sinclair.