Don’t Look Up!

Image is of the ceiling of the Chapel or the Ascension at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham

Don’t be troubled, and do not be afraid. I’m going away and I’m telling you this before it happens, so that when it does, you will be prepared.

Words of advance warning from Jesus to his disciples fit well with the Ascension of Our Lord coming up on Thursday this week. Because Ascension always occurs on a Thursday – the 40th day after the resurrection, the normal custom is to celebrate Ascension on the Sunday after. This year to preserve the Memorial Day weekend commemoration we are anticipating the Ascension on the Sunday before – today -Easter 6.

The Ascension of Jesus presents its own set of challenges to belief. It’s only in Luke, that the Ascension appears as a discrete event. Otherwise, it’s somewhat fuzzy. For instance it’s only hinted at in John’s gospel:

Don’t be troubled, and do not be afraid. I’m going away and I’m telling you this before it happens, so that when it does, you will be prepared.

In John, Jesus alludes to his imminent departure, but beyond offering reassurance of even better things to come – gives no further details.

I think the important point to hold onto here is not when, where, or how the ascension of Jesus took place – but that with the Ascension the pivotal transition point is reached – when the ministry of Jesus morphs into the ministry of the Christian community. Clearly 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 Elisha – giving him a double portion of his master’s spirit, the double portion of Jesus Spirit descends upon the church at Pentecost – but first like Elijah, the master must ascend.

Last week I emphasized that God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth is a vision primarily not for a future in heaven but a call to action in this life. The Revelation to John is explicit on this point:

I saw the new Jerusalem descending to earth so that from henceforth the life of God is to be found among mortals.

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 highlight into sharp focus choices to be made, actions to be taken, and directions to be followed – or avoided – as the case may be.

If the function of religious imagination is capable of multiple meanings that shape inferences of things unseen then the nature of the image matters.

Biblical imagination pictures a metaphorical ladder rising from earth to heaven – with Jesus ascending upwards before disappearing in the clouds. This is not an image that works well for the modern religious imagination. Instead of a ladder disappearing into the clouds – might we better picture heaven and earth no longer up and down but as parallel dimensions with a conduit opening in the membrane separating them. Along this conduit there is a two-way flow between the divine and temporal dimensions or between what we might call Our Space and the God Space.

The Ascension is the first stage of the pivotal transition point – when the ministry of Jesus becomes the work of the Christian community to carry forward. The image of a conduit opening between dimensions allowing a two-way flow between them better speaks to our modern sci-fi influenced imagination. Through the conduit opening between dimensions Jesus returns to the God Space – releasing his all-empowering Spirit to flow in the opposite direction – from the God Space back into the church – the divine energy of the God Space permeating Our Space.

The real question to ask about the Ascension of our Lord is – so what next?

Traditional religious imagination pictures two possibilities in answer to the question: what next? So for instance it’s interesting that Ascension Day provides two collects.

Listen:

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.

Compare:

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.

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. In response to experience there is something in us that longs for God to rescue us from ourselves and the mess we continue to make of the world.

This is an image that attracts us in the present time as we stare into the abyss of the pandemic, ecological collapse, and the resurgence of holy war – or sacred violence as I’ve been naming it. 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 (a reference to Elisha’s request of the ascending Elijah) of the Spirit of Jesus to face up to the challenges ahead in the knowledge that God is here  -empowering us in the age-long struggle to realize the kingdom of God – the new heaven on earth.

The Ascension of Our Lord is a central truth of our Christian faith. The nature of this truth does not lie in the when, where, how mechanics of the event as Luke pictures it. The truth of the Ascension lies in its place along the continuum of birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Let me demonstrate by tabulating the following points:

  • In the birth of Jesus, God the Creator came to dwell within the tent of creation.
  • In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God the Redeemer broke the grip of sacred violence upon the human heart. I’ve spoken of sacred violence within the context of Russia’s holy war against Ukraine. But sacred violence is all around us. It is currently fuelling the denial of a women’s access to safe reproductive health, the sacpegoating LGBTQ persons, the embrace of white supremacy, and the connivance with domestic terrorism.
  • In the Ascension of Jesus is now pictured as an interdimensional movement – the Spirit in Jesus returns to the unity of the divine community.
  • But in so doing Jesus does not discard his humanity like a suit of worn-out clothes. In the Ascension, Jesus returns to the God Space clothed in the fullness of his humanity.
  • The Ascension, allows a double portion of his Spirit to flow back through the interdimensional conduit into Our Space – where we, his body on earth become empowered to continue the work he began.
  • The Ascension is a prerequisite if Pentecost is to follow. This two way traffic through the conduit between Our Space and the God Space results in Jesus bearing humanity into the heart of the divine community, so that – as Revelation poetically phrases it – the home of God now comes to dwell among mortals. From henceforth to be human is to be most like God.

These now are the profound implications for our role in the what’s next in God’s work of renewing the creation – when we tire of gazing heavenwards – that is.

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