The strangest Ascension Sunday I ever experienced was while I was at theological college preparing for ordination. We had as one of the readings a bit from Ephesians 4 where St Paul is talking about the risen and ascended Christ giving gifts to his people. He wrote:
When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people. (When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens so that he might fill all things.)
On hearing this, the group of ordinands I was with was convulsed by nervous laughter as we were just about to make a parachute jump in aid of charity. We were not entirely convinced about what ‘descended to the lower parts of the earth’ might mean. We all survived.
I have difficulties with the language in which the ascension is described. It’s all rather too like the Ascension chapel at Walsingham, where we have a cloud out of which hang the feet of Jesus as he is taken up to heaven with the disciples looking up in wonder and amazement.
None of this, of course, will do. The ascension is a major transition point for the Christian faith, and in the stories about it we read of Jesus bidding farewell to his disciples, then being taken up into a cloud to heaven to rule at God’s right hand in glory – but this is not the kind of language out of which literal sense can be made. The language of physical movement – ascending; of direction – up; of physical means – being caught up into a cloud; and of physical place – sitting at God’s right hand – is all very difficult. We don’t live in a universe where ‘up’ – whatever direction ‘up’ might be – is heaven, where ‘down’ is hell (unless you think that Austral-Asia is hell, at least from a parochial perspective…), and that the ‘middle’ is where we live. The understandings that we have of space and time are a great deal more complex than that – creationists not-withstanding – and so is, I think, our understanding of heaven. But expressing these difficulties is most emphatically not to say that the ascension of Christ is an unimportant event or untrue; but it is to say that attempts to understand this story literally are not generally very successful.
The ascension is a symbol of two great truths about the Christian faith and about our discipleship. On the one hand the ascension is, in traditional and perhaps no longer helpful language, a symbol of the lordship of Christ over all creation, the point St Paul was making in Ephesians. The language of lordship here is not about Jesus being some sort of king ruling over the universe rather in the manner of a human king ruling over a country, for that is clearly not true in any obvious sense. Lordship is, however, a symbol of the new reality that our humanity, which Jesus shared, is now taken into the life of God in a new and more intimate way. This makes the ascension an event by which both we and God are changed. Through the ascension of Christ the life of God is brought into our lives in this new and more intimate way than before with the sending and indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Equally, through the ascension of Christ, what we are as human beings is brought into the life of God. What began with the incarnation – that God becomes one of us – is taken to a whole new level in the ascension as what we are is brought into the life of God. The relationship of creator and creature is changed as God and human beings become a part of each other.
On the other hand, the ascension is also a symbol of the beginning of our work in the world in Christ’s name. God in us – the new truth symbolised by the ascension – begins a new phase of work in the world, a phase in which we embody God to the world; through the Holy Spirit God dwells in us, transforming us and our communities into his very presence in the world. That’s where a throw away remark of that famous Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, makes some sense and can be of some help: the ascension, he said, ‘is neither here nor there’. This doesn’t indicate indifference to the ascension, but represents the paradox at the heart of the ascension. As Christ becomes freed from all the constraints of time and space, so Christ also becomes even more immediately present to us here and now in the indwelling of the Spirit and as we embody him to each other in our communities. The reality of the ascension is that Christ has never left us; he remains Immanuel, God with us, but in a new and more challenging way.
The ascension of Christ, however, needs to make more than a theological difference to our lives; the ascension needs to make some practical difference too, or it is just a nice, if slightly strange, idea. The practical difference the ascension makes is that it prepares us for and enables us to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit of God; and the gift, and the gifts, of the Holy Spirit are given to us for a practical purpose. St Paul, again, writing from his prison in Ephesus, gives us a good idea about what these gifts are for: they are given, he writes:
…to equip God’s people for work in his service, to the building up of the Body of Christ. So shall we at last attain to the unity inherent in our faith and our knowledge of the Son of God – to maturity, measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ.
We are those who are described as God’s people; we are the Body of Christ together with all those who call on his name and seek to do his will; unity and understanding are the goals towards which we strive; maturity, as measured by Christ, is the ultimate prize.
The ascension of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit are also ways of reminding us that with God there’s always more to come. Jesus’ followers had barely got used to the idea that Jesus was raised from the dead, and were all for making that the central focus of their lives, when he is taken from them again, this time with the promise of the coming of the Spirit and a vague promise about returning again. The disciples are not allowed to rest and soon discover that following Jesus is about constantly moving on. Neither the resurrection nor the ascension of Christ is the end of the story of God’s dealings with God’s people – there is more to come. And this, too, is significant for us, because no matter how important remembrance is to our faith, our orientation is not to be backward. To be a follower of Jesus is to look forward in anticipation of the new and sometimes shocking and surprising things God will do. Nowhere does Jesus indicate that whole story has been told; on the contrary the gift of the Spirit is promised precisely to lead us on from where we are to where God would have us be.
So the ascension of Christ is more than superior levitation; it is more than just an interesting theological idea. The ascension of Christ is, above all things, the way Christ becomes ever present to us and the means by which our hearts are prepared to receive the gift of God’s very self in our lives. The ascension is about Christ going on before us, leading us, empowering us, transforming us. It is about us taking the real risk of following a lord who is not only our friend, but who is also our judge; who not only feeds us as a mother feeds her children, but who also dismantles all of the structures we would build along the way in order to contain or restrain him. This is the risk of being a pilgrim people, the risk of being transformed, the risk of being completely liberated from all that enslaves us, including taking ourselves too seriously. Ascension is about being caught up into God, and of having God with us in a new and powerful way.