Thursday, May 13, 2010

Thinking about the ascension

As a holiday, Ascension Day ranks up there with International Talk Like a Pirate Day. That’s too bad, especially for Christians who otherwise believe Easter is the holiest day of the year. Most people know that Advent is a time of preparation leading up to Christmas, and Lent as the 40 days of penance and reflection that precede Easter. But Easter itself is also a “season,” and it ends today with Ascension.

What’s being remembered, of course, is Christ’s entry into heaven. It is not synonymous with his resurrection. If you’re a believer, this is a crucial distinction. In the 40 days after his resurrection, Jesus walked and talked and ate fish and did other decidedly human things. Then he left. This is not some strange added extra to Christian belief, but a central and vital feature of the faith. In some countries, Ascension Day provides an excuse for chasing a “devil” through the streets and dunking it in a pond or burning it in effigy—symbolic of Christ’s triumph over sin. That sounds a lot like Halloween to me, and may account for why the ascension is such a neglected doctrine in the modern church. It’s simply not something we think very much about, and when we do, we tend to get it wrong.

If you’ve ever seen a stained glass window that shows Jesus’ feet sticking downward out of a cloud, you know what I mean.

The idea of the human Jesus now being in heaven, in a thoroughly embodied risen state, comes as a shock to many people. Both our culture and the church are imbued with the Platonic idea that heaven is a spiritual, nonmaterial place, while earth is the exclusive realm of what’s physical and real. That’s not what’s taught in Scripture, however, where we come to understand that heaven and earth are two localities with different kinds of time and space. If you’ve read "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis, you’ll have an idea of what I mean. We don’t know exactly how heaven and earth interlock, but they do, which should make the idea of the ascension of Jesus a little easier to grasp. Or not—depending on where you’re coming from on the question of Jesus.

The New Testament tells us that when God renews the whole cosmos, Jesus himself will be personally present as the center and focus of the new world that will result. The ascension was necessary. It’s part of God’s story, and a pretty amazing and wonderful chapter at that. A cosmic redemption of the universe is in the offing. Placed in that context, the physical ascension of Jesus to a place that looks a lot like this world sounds like something worth remembering. The church is remiss in this regard.

Biblical scholar N.T. Wright has written that part of Christian belief is to find out what's true about Jesus and let that challenge our culture. The death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus does exactly that--in spades.


Anonymous said...


It's real! There's a man in the glory waiting for us to join him.

Thanks for the reminder. I always think of the words to the disciples, "This same Jesus (not a spirit) will come again in the same way you have seen him go into heaven."

Looking forward,


Anonymous said...


I have lately been dwelling on this topic as well, and I'd love to open up the floor for discussion.

Are you suggesting that Jesus literally ascended into... space? And kept going until he reached "heaven", which is in our physical realm, just really high up in the air?

The problem becomes more convoluted when we examine the words of Paul in 1 Cor 15:42:

"So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body."

Spiritual bodies? Was the manifestation of the resurrected Jesus nothing but spiritual?

Of course, we know that this notion strays far from orthodoxy, but how then ought we interpret what Paul means by a spiritual resurrection, and how do we justify the idea that Jesus floated up into space and kept going until he reached heaven?

These thoughts trouble me! I'd love to hear what you think.