Tag: Feast of the Ascension

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).

In honor of the Feast of the Ascension, and for your meditation and listening pleasure (courtesy of a Youtuber named Enrique Guerrero):

Latin text:
Ascendens Christus in altum, captivam duxit captivitatem: dedit dona hominibus.
Alleluia.
Ascendit Deus in jubilatione, et Dominus in voce tubae.
Dedit dona hominibus.
Alleluia.
Dominus in caelo paravit sedem suam.
Alleluia.

Translation:
Christ, ascending on high, led captivity captive: He gave gifts to men.
Alleluia.
God is gone up with a merry noise, and the Lord with the sound of the trumpet.
He gave gifts to men.
Alleluia.
The Lord hath prepared his seat in heaven.
Alleluia.

This beautiful work was published in 1572, while the young Victoria was studying for the priesthood in Rome.  The text is taken from the matins responsory for the Feast of the Ascension.

Spring: Birds chirp. Warmth and the faint aroma of blossoms begin to fill the air (causing not a few to begin sneezing). And in nearly every community, the social buzz turns to the end of another school year, and to life transitions. Gowned students parade proudly before their adoring parents and other well-wishers, and receive their diplomas (or degrees). Some students strut, some wave, some beam, and some try to maintain a semblance of dignity. In most cases, the band or orchestra plays Edward Elgar’s aptly named theme, “Pomp and Circumstance.”

I had a recent taste of this sort of thing myself, as I was honored to be inducted as a Fellow in my professional society. I travelled to the annual convocation, at which I and others like me donned robes and had our new status conferred upon us by the president of the College. Stately classical music, a robed assembly, presence of symbolic objects (such as the Mace of the College), and speeches extolling the high and noble virtues of our profession, all marked the solemnity of the occasion.

When Christians speak of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, we have in mind this kind of thing. The graduating students we honor each spring are ascending to a new academic status. We sometimes even use this kind of language directly when refer to students as “rising 9th graders”, meaning that they are in transition from 8th to 9th grade. “Rising 9th graders” aren’t pupils who are growing taller, nor do we intend to be referring to a bunch of levitating students.

Similarly when Jesus ascended he didn’t merely levitate into the air. He ascended from one status to another. You could say that he graduated. But his ascension is even a bit more than a mere graduation or career transition. The word “Ascension” also carries a connotation of obtaining the privilege and right to a throne or seat of power. For all of the solemnity with which we mark the ascension of a student to the status of graduate, or a Diplomate to the status of a Fellow, these are but dim shadows of the splendor and glory of Christ’s Ascension. Jesus didn’t earn an earthly diploma, or even a PhD. He became something vastly more important than any earthly office or title can convey.

In Christian theology the great feast of Ascension celebrates the fact that when Jesus last addressed his followers on earth it was as the rising King of Glory. Christ left us in order to pass into the invisible realm of God, there to attend his coronation. In the presence of God he is enthroned now as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Christians believe that this event was glimpsed by the prophet Daniel:

I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.

And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14, from Holy Bible, King James Version).

Currently, the reality (mostly invisible to us) is that Jesus has graduated earth and ascended to his throne, where he reigns in glory. He reigns now–not just in some distant future era. The illusion we have now, that there is no such King, or that we are perfectly sovereign over our own lives, will someday evaporate. The curtain will part for us as it did for the martyr Stephen just before he was executed:

“But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.”(Holy Bible).

P.S. We would be remiss if we didn’t take a moment to give our heartfelt best wishes to all of those who are graduating from school or college. May God illuminate your paths.