The spiritual reality of the Ascension

The Ascension by Phoebe Anna Traquair at the Mansfield Traquair Centre, Edinburgh

Someone I know once expressed concern because he learned Bishop Spong says that if Jesus had ascended to heaven, then he was still going up without stopping since there’s nothing up there but outer space. This sort of crass literalism is not even worthy of fundamentalists who know very well that when Jesus ascended, he didn’t go to a place within the physical, material, tangible, visible universe that is measurable by scientific equipment.

But it turns out that Spong doesn’t even believe in heaven, so whether he was willfully misunderstanding orthodoxy or simply stating his own beliefs — “There is no heaven, so Jesus must have kept going, I guess!” — doesn’t really matter. But what this Spong-ian anecdote represents is a certain discomfort some have in our age with the miracle of the Ascension, perhaps because the divine has been boxed in by the Enlightenment, likely also because people assume illiterate, ancient fishermen were idiots who actually thought heaven was a place in the sky.

Although I have not read the entirety of Christian literature, the only person I’ve encountered who seems to think heaven is literally “up there” is Cosmas Indicopleustes, the same guy who is in that minority of fools who believed in a flat earth (most educated people in the ancient and medieval world knew better). And I may even have misunderstood Cosmas, taking the diagrams in the copy of his book too literally. This is an actual possibility, not just me being irenic or falsely modest.

Most thoughtful Christians who have considered what this event means whilst simultaneously asserting its historicity have decided that, when Jesus was hidden from view behind the cloud, he passed from our plane of physical existence into the Throne of God in the Heavens (taking his physical, human body with Him!!). It strikes me that there may be spiritual significance in God’s use of a cloud, although it may simply have been the most convenient thing for the moment.

Here is the take we find on this event in The Cloud of Unknowing:

[Ch. 59] And if you are going to refer me to our Lord’s Ascension, and say it must have physical significance as well as spiritual, seeing it was a physical body that ascended, and he is true God and true Man, my answer is that he had been dead, and then was clothed with immortality; and so shall we be at the Day of Judgement. At that time we shall be so rarefied in our body-and-soul, that we shall be able to go physically wherever we will as swiftly as we can now go anywhere mentally in thought. Up, down, sideways, backwards, forwards — it will be all the same to us, and good, so the scholars say. But at the present time you cannot go to heaven physically, but only spiritually. And it is so really spiritual that it is not physical at all: neither above or below us, beside or behind or before.

[Ch. 60] Now perhaps you are saying, ‘But how do you arrive at these conclusions?’ For you are thinking you have real evidence that heaven is up above, for Christ ascended physically upwards, and, later, sent the Holy Spirit, as he promised, from above, unseen by any disciple. And we believe this. And therefore, you think, with this real evidence before you, why should you not direct your mind literally upward when you pray?

I will answer this as best I can, however inadequately. Since it had to be that Christ should ascend physically, and then send the Holy Spirit in tangible form, it was more suitable that it should be ‘upwards’, and ‘from above’, than it should be ‘downwards’ and ‘from beneath’, ‘from behind, from the front, or from the sides’. Apart from this matter of suitability, there was no more need for him to have gone upwards than downwards, the way is so near. For, spiritually, heaven is as near down as up, up as down, behind as before, before as behind, on this side as on that! So that whoever really wanted to be in heaven, he is there and then in heaven spiritually. For we run the high way (and the quickest) to heaven on our own desires, and not on our two feet. So St Paul speaks for himself and many others when he says that although our bodies are actually here on earth, we are living in heaven. (Phil. 3:20) -Trans. Clifton Wolters, chh. 59, 60, pp. 125-127

While there are some late medieval mystical works that should be classed as “outliers” and not representative of Christian tradition more widely, on this point, at least, The Cloud of Unknowing is not an outlier. There is thus no theological reason to doubt that Jesus actually did rise up into the air before vanishing from his disciples’ sight. Believing in the historicity of the Ascension neither makes you a fundamentalist, nor necessitates Jesus continually ascending through the reaches of interstellar space.

So celebrate the Ascension tomorrow without feeling like you must turn off your brain.

Ascension

Chapel of the Ascension, Walsingham

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.