Category: History

“Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”

So opines an article by Ed Kilgore in New York Magazine on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On a variety of issues, the two camps have moved closer together theologically (see, for example, our article “Protestants and Catholics Celebrate Agreement on Justification”). Protestants have warmed toward some of the church’s historic liturgies and practices (such as the increasing popularity of observing Lent). The Roman Catholics have had their own internal reformations both in response to Luther in the 1600’s, and more recently with the reforms instituted by the Vatican II council.

Catholics have by and large embraced what might have previously been considered distinctly Protestant practices, like the use of vernacular languages in worship, personal Bible study (again, in the language of the reader rather than Latin), congregational singing of hymns, etc; and they have shed some of the more egregious practices that rankled Protestants (and also internal critics), such as the selling of indulgences. And as the article points out, “Moreover, virtually all Christians have abandoned some of the more unsavory habits of thought and deed they once shared, from aggressive anti-Semitism to active state-sanctioned persecution of “heretics.”

Today, the real divide is within denominations more than between them. “The difference among Christians these days tend to break along a left-right rather than a Catholic-Protestant spectrum,” says Kilgore.

The NY magazine article quotes Atlantic writer Emma Green, who observes the same shifts in an essay entitled “Why Can’t Christians Get Along, 500 Years After the Reformation?“.

Historian Mark Noll of Notre Dame notes that Catholics and Protestants have come closer together. “In my lifetime, there has been a sea change in Protestant-Catholic relations, opening up an unimaginable array of cooperation.”

Yet these denominations are beginning to fracture over LGBTQ issues and more fundamental disagreements between traditional Christians, especially in places like Africa, and the intellectual elites in the west who embrace a more worldly and progressive stance. In reaction,

A growing number of Christians are organizing themselves based on ideological convictions, rather than a shared confessional tradition. “As a lot of denominational traditions are experiencing pressure and even fracture,” said Noll, “so also [is] interdenominational cooperation amongst like-minded people growing in leaps and bounds.”

Luther, on trial for his life at the Diet of Worms, refused to recant his writings. Here is the famous conclusion of his speech, as determined by Reformation Scholar Keiko Olbermann:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”

(Luther is often quoted as saying “Here I stand, I can do no other.” While stirring, this is felt by most Luther scholars to be spurious).

See Christianity Today article “What Luther Said“.

Portrait of John Wycliffe, 1828, by Thomas Kirkby (1775–c.1848)

Known as the “morning star of the English Reformation”, Wycliffe undertook to translate the Latin (Vulgate) Bible into Middle English. His radical ideas on the papacy, transubstantiation, prayer to saints, and monastacism foreshadowed later Protestant developments.

He was born in 1320s in Yorkshire, and made his way to Oxford by 1345. He completed his Arts degree at Merton College in 1356, was named Master of Balliol College in 1361. By 1372, he obtained a doctorate in theology, and was in that year part of a commission which the English Government sent to Bruges to discuss with the representatives of Gregory XI some points of disagreement between the king and the pope.

Wycliffe began writing treatises advancing his theories on church reform, including an advocation that the church divest of property and that high secular offices not be held by clergy. These positions brought him into conflict with church authorities, but he had a strong protector in the 1st Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. He was summoned to appear before the Bishop of London, but essentially a brawl broke out and he was spared censure. A papal bull criticizing him was published by Pope Gregory in 1377, but Gregory died before much action could be taken. Furthermore, this was a time when in England the common people and royalty alike took a somewhat dim view of the papacy.

Wycliffe continued his work, and in 1380 became involved in efforts to translate the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible into Middle English. Simultaneously his position began to erode as the new Archbishop of Canterbury took action against him. His works were condemned at a synod held at Blackfriars, London, in 1382, and his writings were banned at Oxford. He retired to Lutterworth, where he was already rector of the parish church of St Mary (since 1374). There he wrote copiously until his death in 1384. He suffered a stroke while saying mass on Dec 28. About 30 years later, in 1415, he was posthumously condemned as a heretic at the Council of Constance, and his remains dug up and cast into the river Swift.

His followers were known as Lollards, and were aggressively persecuted in the 15th century. Many went to the stake, and the movement went underground. “A gruesome reminder of this persecution is the ‘Lollards Pit’ in Thorpe Wood, now Thorpe Hamlet, Norwich, Norfolk, where men are customablie burnt.” (Wikipedia). The movement was later absorbed into the Protestant Reformation. Bishop Cuthbert of London called Lutheranism the “foster-child” of the Wycliffite heresy.

Wycliffe advocated a number of positions that would later be labelled “Protestant”:

  • Criticized the Church of his day for its wealth and abuses of power.
  • Criticized the practice of indulgences (remission of time spent in purgatory)
  • Criticized monasticism and advocated dissolution of the monasteries.
  • Became increasingly disenchanted with the pope, even likening him to anti-Christ by the end of his life.
  • Taught that the Bible is the supreme authority.
  • Taught that the church is the invisible community of the elect, predestined by God, in contrast to the visible institution of the Church.
  • He rejected transubstantiation, believing that the bread and wine remained bread and wine, but are instead spiritually infused with God’s presence.
  • He declared the right of every Christian to know the Bible.
  • Emphasized the importance of Christ alone as the sufficient way of salvation, without the aid of works.

His most enduring legacy is the English Bible. He was personally responsible for translating much of the New Testament. The revision of this work, after his death, has become known to history as the Wycliffe Bible.

He is commemorated by the Anglicans on December 31.

On the approach to the 500th year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, some major efforts have been made to bridge the theological divide. In July, the World Council of Reformed Churches (WCRC) joined the Lutheran World Federation, Roman Catholics, and the World Methodist Council in accepting a common view of the doctrine of justification, one of the key issues of contention between the parties. The Anglicans have passed affirming resolutions in the Anglican Consultative Council, and in the Church of England’s general synod. The Archbishop of Canterbury plans to spend Halloween celebrating the accord during a service at Westminster Abbey on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s revolt. (See article from Christian Today.)

The Protestant understanding of justification states that we are saved through faith alone (“sola fide”) by God’s grace alone (“sola gratia”). No human cooperation is of any merit. This was central to Martin Luther’s teaching.

The Roman Catholic Church grappled with this idea and soundly rejected it in the 16th century Council of Trent:

Canon IX: If anyone says that the ungodly is justified by faith alone in such a way that he understands that nothing else is required which cooperates toward obtaining the grace of justification . . . let him be condemned.

At the heart of the new agreement is an attempt to formulate a statement on justification to which both parties can assent. As a Jesuit publication, American Magazine, summarized:

The Joint Declaration effectively closes the centuries-old “faith versus works” debate by merging the Lutheran and Catholic views on salvation rather than setting them against each other.
“By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part,” its key passage said, “we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.”

The Catholic church states that the anathemas in the 16th century Council of Trent do not apply to Protestants who agree with the Joint Declaration.

The Joint Declaration is not without criticism from both sides. One need not look too far to find Catholics who feel that this betrays the Catholic doctrines advocated in the 16th century Council of Trent. One example is the theologian Dr. Christopher Malloy of the University of Dallas:

“In fact, I am quite concerned that many people–even many Catholics and perhaps some of those who have recently become Catholic–are under the misimpression that, since the JD, Catholicism now holds that humans stand just before God by “faith” apart from charity and apart from observance of the commandments. Many high-caliber theologians have contended that Catholicism has changed some of its dogmas on justification. Catholics are rightly horrified”.

Furthermore, he is concerned about the diverse views held by Lutherans:

“We do not have a consensus of interpretation on the very identity of Lutheranism. Therefore, the JD’s claim to reconcile Lutheran and Catholic positions on justification begs the question: Which Lutheranism?”
(Source: 2007 interview by Ignatius Insight).

A very good summary of the issues, and criticism of the accord can be found in a 1999 essay penned by the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, entitled “Two Languages of Salvation: The Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration.”

On the Protestant side, there is considerable dissent as well. The more conservative Lutheran and Reformed bodies (such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) have repudiated it. In an essay entitled “Betrayal of the Gospel” Paul McLain charges,

“In fact, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is a fraud. It was a sell-out by revisionist Lutherans to Rome.”

In the end, this accord is largely a symbolic gesture, but then symbols do matter. It is encouraging that the heirs of the disagreement that so bitterly raged centuries ago have agreed to seek common ground and soften their condemnations of each other. I don’t foresee Protestants and Catholics achieving institutional unity, as a great many other serious issues divide us.

Still, I might echo the statement of a prominent evangelical (who was recalling a similar rapprochement between evangelicals and Catholics):

“There is enough commonality that evangelicals and Catholics with a living faith can recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ with a common Lord and common grace that brought them together.”
(Dean of Beeson Divinity School, Timothy George, quoted in Christianity Today).

About 100 years before Martin Luther, a Czech scholar was burned at the stake, by Church authorities who had initially promised him safe passage (they later reneged on this on the theory that it is okay to lie to heretics). The year was 1415, and the Council of Konstanz was in session, dealing with numerous grave issues that had arisen and were threatening to weaken the authority of the Church (including multiple popes–not just two, but three different claimants to the title and office of “Pope”). For more on this Council, see our prior article on Konstanz). During the Council at Konstanz, John Wycliffe was condemned posthumously for his teachings, and Hus was put on trial. His death galvanized a host of followers, particularly in Bohemia (modern day Czechoslovakia), who formed a movement that foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation.

Jan Hus was born in about 1369 in Husinec, Bohemia. It is said that he decided to become a priest in order to lift himself out of poverty. He went to the Imperial city of Prague for his studies, obtaining a Master of Arts degree in 1396. He was ordained a priest in 1400. He continued to teach at the arts faculty and was named dean of the arts faculty in 1401. In 1402 Hus was chosen by the Czech masters of Charles College to be preacher of Bethlehem Chapel, a large and popular church. This role included supervision of two residential student colleges in connection with the chapel, where he served for the next decade.

He became a critic of the corruptions of the clergy, and an enthusiastic supporter of the teachings of John Wycliffe, whose works he translated into the Czech language. In the following years he was thrust into the forefront of the reform movement in Prague, and was supported by King Wenceslaus (of the Christmas song fame), who was jockeying to become Holy Roman Emperor. In 1409, the king maneuvered to give the Czech faction the decisive power at the University of Prague. Consequently, the bulk of the German faculty left and Hus was put into the role of Rector of the University of Prague. (The departing scholars included the founders of the University of Leipzig, which opened its doors in 1409).

Not long afterward Hus’ archbishop excommunicated him, not so much for heresy but for disobedience, in essence for supporting a different papal claimant than did the archbishop. Hus remained popular in Prague, supported by King Wenceslaus, and was free to teach and preach as before. Eventually the archbishop was forced to flee Prague, dying en route to Hungary in 1411.

In a foreshadowing of Martin Luther’s conflict with Tetzel, Hus became incensed over the sale of indulgences–the offering for sale of the Church’s purported power to grant forgiveness and shorten the time one’s relatives spent in purgatory. When the antipope John XXIII began pushing indulgences in order to wage war against his rivals, Hus was furious:

The pope was acting in mere self-interest, and Huss could no longer justify the pope’s moral authority. He leaned even more heavily on the Bible, which he proclaimed the final authority for the church. Huss further argued that the Czech people were being exploited by the pope’s indulgences, which was a not-so-veiled attack on the Bohemian king, who earned a cut of the indulgence proceeds. With this he lost the support of his king. (from Christianity Today).

The conflict boiled on, and Hus was excommunicated by the Roman authorities for disobeying a summons to appear in Rome. This time, the excommunication was enforced, and the entire city of Prague came under an interdict so long as Hus was permitted to preach. In 1412, to spare the residents of Prague, he left the city, retiring to the countryside where he wrote a number of treatises.

In 1415 Hus went to Konstanz hoping for a hearing before the great Council. Instead he was arrested and put on trial, where he was asked merely to recant. He refused, saying, “I appeal to Jesus Christ, the only judge who is almighty and completely just. In his hands I plead my cause, not on the basis of false witnesses and erring councils, but on truth and justice.”

After his death, open rebellion broke out in Bohemia and Moravia, and for a time the “Hussites” dominated. Over the next 20 years a coalition of Hussites and others defeated three armies sent to reclaim the region in what is known as the “Hussite wars”.

The Hussites did not directly lead to the more successful Protestant Reformation, but can be seen as an important predecessor that had similar aims. As the Christianity Today article notes:
Huss would become a hero to Luther and many other Reformers, for Huss preached key Reformation themes (like hostility to indulgences) a century before Luther drew up his 95 Theses. But the Reformers also looked to Huss’s life, in particular, his steadfast commitment in the face of the church’s cunning brutality.

Luther remarked upon reviewing the writings of Hus: “I was overwhelmed with astonishment. I could not understand for what cause they had burnt so great a man, who explained the Scriptures with so much gravity and skill.”

Eventually the Bohemian Reformation was crushed in 1620, and every inhabitant forced to become Roman Catholic by the victorious King Ferdinand II. Remnants of the Hussites diffused into Lutheranism or exist today as a number of small denominations, including the Moravian Church. Although Czechoslovakia is now mostly a secular nation, Hus remains very popular there; He was voted the greatest hero of the Czech nation in a 2015 survey by Czech Radio. His stature has risen a bit even in the Roman Catholic Church, which issued a kind of apology through a speech by pope John Paul II in 1999.

For further reading:

In October 1917 the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia brought Karl Marx’ radical economic and political views to life. Communism went from abstract theory to abject reality, from world view to world power. In the subsequent decades, wherever it has succeeded in dominating a country’s political processes, very dramatic and mostly tragic changes have occurred. It is grown old, yet remains as fresh a threat as the latest headlines about North Korea.

Supporters would say that the utopian ends justify the means of bringing about a better society–that you have to break some eggs to make omelets. The death toll represented by those broken eggs is so staggering, as to be nearly uncountable. The Black Book of Communism gives an estimate of 94 million killed in the 20th century. The gory brutality of this “progress” dwarfs the horrors of fascism and has given even ardent supporters pause on occasion. (Whittaker Chambers was a notable example, and his tell all book Witness remains a chilling bestseller from the Cold War era of the 20th century).

Even in places where it has not fully succeeded, such as in the United States and Western Europe, we still struggle with its insidious influences on institutions such as the Church and academia, and with its cultural legacy, including divorce on demand and abortion.

Communism has been an implacable foe of Christianity since its conception in the mind of Karl Marx, who criticized religion as the “opiate of the masses”. He found it guilty of anesthetizing people against the painful realities of their economic oppression by powerful capitalists. Communism has tried to stamp out faith. Places that were once cultural centers of Christian belief, such as Moscow, were decimated. Beginning in Russia, churches were looted, and then destroyed or turned into museums, while the priests who served in them were shot or deported. This pattern repeated itself in China, Vietnam, Korea–Some may recall that Pyongyang in North Korea was once known as the “Jerusalem of the East”.

Ironically, Communism as a governing force is largely fulfilling what a young Bolshevik once furiously predicted of his opponents. Leon Trotsky could have been speaking of all his own poisonous ilk, radical communists then and yet to come, when on October 25, 1917 he spat to the Mensheviks, “You are pitiful, isolated individuals! You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on – into the dustbin of history!”

The story of David and Goliath has been recently retold in an interesting essay by Malcolm Gladwell. It is still a tale of bravery, of heroic faith, of the small defeating the large against what appears to be insurmountable odds. But there are a couple of under-appreciated aspects to the story.

In the 11th century BCE, the people of Israel under King Saul were struggling for survival against the dread Philistines. These marauders from the sea had conquered their way along the Valley of Elah, and were on the verge of dividing Israel in two. David was a mere shepherd boy, bringing food to his brothers, and was not even officially in the army. Goliath was a giant who had been taunting the Israelites to send a champion to fight him. David, hearing the taunts, and seeing no one rise to the occasion, begged King Saul to allow him to fight Goliath. Even in the secular culture, the outcome of this contest is widely known.

And the Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.” Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand.”
When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.
(from 1 Samuel 17, Holy Bible, English Standard Version)

Traditionally this has seemed almost like a suicide mission. David looks crazy for wanting to do this, and Saul looks even crazier for entrusting the fate of his country to a crazy boy. However, a couple of interesting features are often overlooked.

1. Goliath was weaker than he appeared.

Though he was enormous, and therefore intimidating, certain features of the story indicate that this warrior had acromegaly, a medical problem brought on by a pituitary gland tumor that secretes excessive growth hormone. The pituitary gland sits in the base of the brain, right at the optic chiasm, where nerves from the eyes cross each other on their way to the vision centers at the back of the brain. A tumor here can cause vision loss and double vision. Other symptoms of acromegaly include headaches, weakness, and joint pains.

Goliath was slow, and apparently could not see well. Terrible vision would be an explanation for why he had an armor bearer with him, to lead him around. It explains why he insisted that the opponent come closer. And it might be why he said “why do you come at me with sticks“, when David had only one stick. A pituitary tumor, again, could cause diplopia, or double vision.

As Gladwell observes,
What the Israelites saw, from high on the ridge, was an intimidating giant. In reality, the very thing that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness. There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem. (Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 2013)

2. Bringing a gun to a knife fight

Assyrian Slingers at Lachish, from a relief at the British Museum. Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). Used under Creative Commons 4.0 license.

If Goliath could see better, he might have been a bit more nervous when David approached. Perhaps he would have protested the unfairness of doing battle against a projectile warrior; to twist a line from the old musical “West Side Story”: “Who brings a gun to a knife fight?”

The second major point to consider is to realize that we aren’t talking about a children’s slingshot toy. In fact, the sling David used was a deadly projectile weapon. Sling projectiles could find their target from a distance of 400 meters or more, and strike their target with the force of a bullet. Several ancient sources praise slings and their users for their accuracy and strategic importance.

For example, slingers in the army of Artaxerxes II were crucial in beating back a Greek force in 401 BC:

“we were not a whit more able to injure the enemy, while we had considerable difficulty in beating a retreat ourselves. Thank heaven they did not come upon us in any great force, but were only a handful of men; so that the injury they did us was not large, as it might have been; and at least it has served to show us what we need. At present the enemy shoot and sling beyond our range, so that our Cretan archers are no match for them; our hand-throwers cannot reach as far; and when we pursue, it is not possible to push the pursuit to any great distance from the main body, and within the short distance no foot-soldier, however fleet of foot, could overtake another foot-soldier who has a bow-shot the start of him. If, then, we are to exclude them from all possibility of injuring us as we march, we must get slingers as soon as possible and cavalry. I am told there are in the army some Rhodians, most of whom, they say, know how to sling, and their missile will reach even twice as far as the Persian slings (which, on account of their being loaded with stones as big as one’s fist, have a comparatively short range; but the Rhodians are skilled in the use of leaden bullets)”(Xenophon, Anabasis, book III)

Back to young David, it still required a lot of courage and faith to take on the giant. However, the courage wasn’t idiotic, nor the faith blind. This isn’t a crazy loon getting lucky. David’s faith was informed by reason, even cunning. Our faith similarly should be informed by–not divorced from–reason.

As salesman and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once put it: “They looked at Goliath, you know, and figured he was too big to hit. David looked at him and knew he was too big to miss. It’s the way you look at things.” (From Zig Ziglar’s Life Story)

September 14 marks an interesting and ancient feast in the Church, “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross” or “Holy Cross Day.” The day is observed in some fashion by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans. Red vestments are traditionally worn on Holy Cross Day.

The history behind this is fascinating, as it marks a time when Christianity was becoming ascendant within the Roman Empire. The story displays also something of the shift toward what we might identify as a medieval mindset within the faith. After all, this is a tale of magic, of a questing empress, and the veneration of relics that are thought to provide divine protection.

The empress in question is Helena (also known as Saint Helena in some circles), a woman of obscure birth who became the wife of Constantius, one of the co-emperors of the Roman Empire; Though he divorced her, their only son was Constantine I, destined to become the supreme ruler in the year 306. She never remarried, but remained close with her son. She was a devout Christian, and did much to promote Christianity within a Roman Empire that had previously tried to squash it.

The emperor Constantine appointed his mother Helena as “Augusta Imperatrix” and authorized her to go on a quest to the Holy Land to investigate Christian sites. She tore down pagan shrines which had been deliberately placed at Christian sites by an earlier emperor, and she began the building of magnificent churches at the sites of Jesus’ birth and at the Mount of Olives.

While in Jerusalem, she is said to have found the “true cross” upon which Jesus was executed. According to legend the cross of Jesus had been buried in a cistern, along with crosses of the other two prisoners executed with him. She supposedly also recovered the nails and a part of the sign that had hung above his head (a wooden plaque inscribed with Jesus Nazaranus Rex Iudaeorum). The “true Cross” was identified among the three based on observation of its healing powers.

The subsequent tale of the cross could fill a large book. Much of it was carried to Constantinople, and part of it went to Rome, where it is kept to this day at the Basilica Santa Croce. The portion left in Jerusalem was stolen in 614 by the Persian emperor Khosrau II, and returned after his defeat by Byzantine emperor Heraclitus. In the 12th century, when the Crusaders reconquered Jerusalem, it came into the possession of Arnulf Malecorne, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who carried it aloft during battles. It was later captured by Saladin and lost to history.

Tiny fragments of the “true cross” were prized among the faithful; they became popular as amulets for kings and nobles to wear as a sign of faith and for personal protection, and for churches to keep as relics. The proliferation of relics accelerated at sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1124. Bits of the “true cross” can be found across the globe, from Greece’s Mount Athos to Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, to Shaftesbury, England to Galveston, Texas. By the 16th century, Protestant reformer John Calvin remarked, “…if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.”

Saint Ambrose, in his funeral oration for Theodosius, recounted the legend surrounding the discovery of the true cross, and said this of Helena: “she worshiped not the wood, but the King, him who hung upon the cross.”

May we do the same.

For more information:
As of the time of this writing, Wikipedia has a long and interesting article about the True Cross. More details about these stories are also available online at Catholic Education Resource Center, and at New Advent.

The Ascension of Jesus, celebrated today as a major feast day in many churches, remains a deep mystery that both amazes and confounds us to this day.

According to the last verses of book of Luke: And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

I remember a movie portrayal of Jesus beaming down at his disciples as he rises into a clear blue sky. Though I otherwise liked the movie, I thought this bit of celluloid really looked kind of cheesy.

We are left to wonder, what really happened? Was this just a final flourish as Jesus left our plane of existence? Did Jesus really fly up like Superman? Did he perhaps disapparate in a puff of smoke like those “death eater” wizards in Harry Potter movies? Did he shimmer and fade out like a Star Trek character in a transporter beam? Did he go into orbit around earth and then zip on out into space?

The world’s first human in space, Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union, is reported to have announced in 1961 that when he went into space, he looked around, and didn’t see God up there. (More on this in a minute).

I happened to run across a blog post on Patheos, by Butler University’s Chair of New Testament Language and Literature, James McGrath, which showed some hilarious (if irreverent) pictures of Jesus in a space suit. I take his photos and his accompanying article–somewhat derisive in tone– to be a warning against too simplistic and literal a reading of this (or any) passage. The author states:

Ascension day is a perfect day to draw attention to the fact that literalism is not only problematic, but impossible. Even if someone insists on maintaining the literal truth of the claim in Acts that Jesus literally went up into heaven, they cannot maintain the worldview of the first century Christians which provided the context for the affirmation. They knew nothing of light-years, distant galaxies or interstellar space without oxygen. And it is not possible, through some act of either will or faith, to forget absolutely everything that has been learned since then and believe as they did. Even those who willingly choose to disbelieve modern science are making a choice that the first Christians did not have, and thus accept dogmatically what early Christians naively assumed because they knew no better.”

Now, I would presume that most Christians, including those early ones who witnessed this event, understood this occasion to be something different than space travel, or moving from one spot inside the universe to another. It was not translation through space but the exaltation of Christ that was the main point emphasized in the earliest Christian writings. As St. Paul gushed:

Therefore also God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).

Famed author C. S. Lewis wittily rebutted the comment attributed to Gagarin:

Looking for God — or Heaven — by exploring space is like reading or seeing all Shakespeare’s plays in the hope you will find Shakespeare as one of the characters or Stratford as one of the places. Shakespeare is in one sense present at every moment in every play. But he is never present in the same way as Falstaff or Lady Macbeth, nor is he diffused through the play like a gas.
If there were an idiot who thought plays exist on their own, without an author, our belief in Shakespeare would not be much affected by his saying, quite truly, that he had studied all the plays and never found Shakespeare in them.
(“The Seeing Eye”, in C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967).

Tim Keller, the famed pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has further commented on this:

“C. S. Lewis wrote that if there is a God, we certainly don’t relate to him as people on the first floor of a building relate to people on the second floor. We relate to him the way Hamlet relates to Shakespeare. We (characters) might be able to know quite a lot about the playwright, but only to the degree that the author chooses to put information about himself in the play.
“In the Christian view, however, we believe that God did even more than simply give us information. … God, as it were, looked into the world he had made and saw our lostness and had pity on his people. And so he wrote himself into human history as its main character (John 3: 16). The second person in the Trinity, the Son of God, came into the world as a man, Jesus Christ.”
(Tim Keller, online at monergism.com).

Jesus isn’t any longer on the set (this world), nor is he in the rafters of the theater, nor is he next door quaffing a pint in the pub with the other actors. Nor is he anywhere floating around in outer space. He is outside the script, outside the story–outside the universe. He conquered death, took a bow, and exited. He is not a cosmonaut but the very author of the cosmos.

Epilogue:
Back to Yuri Gagarin. His friend Valentin Petrov has been interviewed as saying that Gagarin was in fact a devoted Christian at a time when it was dangerous to be such. The quote referenced above is from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev:

It was most certainly not Gagarin who said this, but Khrushchev! This was connected with a plenary session of the Central Committee addressing the question of anti-religious propaganda. Khrushchev then set the task for all Party and Komsomol [Young Communists] organizations to boost such propaganda. He said: “Why are you clinging to God? Here Gagarin flew into space and didn’t see God.” However, some time later these words began to be portrayed in a different light. They were cited in reference not to Khrushchev, but to Gagarin, who was beloved by the people. Such a phrase spoken by him would be of great significance. Khrushchev wasn’t especially trusted, they said, but Gagarin would certainly be. But nothing was ever said by Gagarin about this, nor could he have uttered such things.

(photo credit: Fabrice de Nola, 1996. Yuri Gagarin, oil on canvas, cm 40 x 40).