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.
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).