Don’t look up!

Don’t look up – words of warning for us as we, like the disciples let our eyes be distracted with gazing upwards after Jesus majestically ascending into a swirl of cumulus clouds – illuminated against a backdrop of suffused sunlight. 

Oh, how different is Jesus’ departure from his arrival into this world!

Because Ascension always occurs on a Thursday – the 40th day after the resurrection, the normal custom is to celebrate Ascension on the Sunday after – and even then – we are likely to miss the significance of this event because the Ascension of Jesus presents its own set of challenges to belief.

In Matthew and Mark, it appears as a kind of concluding event to tie up some loose ends. Jesus had died and then unexpectedly returned in a post resurrection body – that while defying some fundamental laws of Newtonian physics is still a recognizable human body – even to the extent of still displaying the wounds of his passion. They’d seen him die and then they ‘d witnessed his return! He remained living and breathing among them and then – poof – he was gone!  But gone where? Well, as every child in Sunday School knows, he’d gone up to heaven – dummy.

In Luke, the Ascension not only comes at the end of the story of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, son  of God – tying up any loose ends – but more importantly it becomes the preamble for the opening chapter in Luke’s sequel to his life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God – the Acts of the Apostles – or  the life and times of the Church.

Writing after Luke, John understands this point clearly but has his own inimitable way of writing about it as we find in today’s Gospel. John’s Jesus in unpacking the significance of his resurrection over a series of Sunday evenings in the upper room carefully explains to his disciples that he must leave them so that God can glorify him with the glory that he had before the world existed. But he is at pains to reassure them that they will not be left comfortless like abandoned orphans.

When it comes to the Ascension, it’s not the when, or where, or how, or even whether it took place – but that with the Ascension a pivotal transition point is reached in the longer story of creation, incarnation, and resurrection. In Jesus’ birth God entered human experience through a human life. In other words the Creator came to dwell within the tent of the creation. At his Ascension, it’s not the restoration of Jesus’ pre-existent divinity that is the main point but God’s reception of his full humanity – perfected through suffering – into the divine nature.

The function of imagination is to construct meaning out of events that are not directly observable to the human eye – and yet – events that nonetheless shape our experience. Religious imagination builds pictures that distill into sharp focus choices to be made, actions to be taken, and directions to be followed – or avoided – as the case may be.

Luke’s graphic account of the event is powerfully influenced by Elijah’s ascension recorded in the 2nd book of Kings. In like manner – as the mantle of Elijah fell upon the shoulders of his disciple Elisha – giving him a double portion of his master’s spirit, God having received the fullness of Jesus’ humanity – perfected through suffering – into the divine nature – a double portion of Jesus’ Spirit now descends upon the disciples at Pentecost. Ascension and Pentecost – humanity ascending and divinity descending, are the contraflow events connecting the dimension of time and space with the spiritual ground – joining heaven to earth and earth to heaven.

For the modern imagination, the medieval picture of a three-tiered universe – with the spatial references of heaven above and earth beneath – of up and down – becomes the image of a contraflow between time and space and the spiritual ground. The Ascension is a contraflow between parallel dimensions.

If we can stop looking up long enough we can ask the real question – so what next?

Traditional religious imagination pictures two possibilities in answer to the question: what next? Both are imagined in the dualling collects for the Ascension.


Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell.

Compare and contrast with:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.

We see how religious imagination struggles with the question: so, what next? We long to throw up our hands – giving up on the evils of the world – to ascend with the Lord and there with him to dwell. We long for God to rescue us from ourselves and the mess we continue to make of the world.

We stand amidst an imperfect recovery from global pandemic while staring into the abyss of the ecological collapse. We are struggling to avert the prospect of multiple global flashpoints – Ukraine- Russia-Nato, Israel-Palestine, Israel-Iran, a collapsing nuclear armed Pakistan, China-Taiwan-US – any one of which could spell global catastrophe.  For us things seem to be going from bad to worse according to every measure of progress. So, it’s a natural response to pray for God to – beam us up, Scotty.

Yet, in the Ascension of Jesus God promises to fill all things and to abide here with us – amidst all the pain, disappointment, and sheer messiness of this world. We must not fall into the temptation of wishing to be rescued out of this world. Instead, we must stand firm – empowered by a double measure of the Spirit of Jesus to face up to the challenges ahead in the knowledge that a God acquainted with suffering stands with us. Because Jesus is acquainted with our suffering – God through the divine spirit empowers us in our age-long struggle to realize coming of the kingdom in a new heaven – on earth.

The Ascension of Our Lord is a central insight of our Christian faith. The nature of this insight does not lie in the when, where, how, or whether the event as Luke pictures it took place. As a central insight the Ascension punctuates the continuum that runs on one side from Jesus’s birth, through his death and resurrection to the other side of the Ascension where the instruction don’t look up becomes the question what’s next?

What’s next? Let the words of the late Irish poet, John O’Donohue speak here:

May [we] have the courage today,

To live the life that [we] would love,

To postpone [our] dream no longer

But do at last what [we] came here for

And waste [our] heart[s] on fear no more. (Morning Offering)

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