Psalm 8, Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14 & Hebrews 1
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Of all the amazing events that took place around Jesus, the Ascension is one that a lot of people struggle to get a grip on. It’s so difficult to imagine.
If you visit the Chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham, there are two feet sculpted into the ceiling. It’s meant to give the feeling of Jesus being lifted up into heaven, but I always think the result is rather like the floor above has given way, and someone has fallen through!
But how else can an artist depict this moment?
Many years ago, back in 1993, I was confirmed at Ascension by the then Bishop of Durham, The Right Reverend David Jenkins. As always he preached memorably, querying whether the Ascension really took place in a physical form, until suddenly his crosier fell over with a loud bang and he quipped, “That’s either the devil trying to prevent me or God trying to shut me up!”
But it stuck with me, that even a bishop could struggle with the actuality of the Ascension.
Even St Luke, who wrote both Acts and his Gospel, found it hard to put into words. In one version Jesus “withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven” (Luke 24.51) and the disciples happily returned to Jerusalem praising God. In the other “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1.9) and the disciples remained staring up into the sky until a helpful angel prompted them to move on with their mission.
So what are we to make of this event, 2000 years later?
Well, it can be helpful to see the Ascension as the completion of Christmas. At Christmas Jesus, the Son, came down from heaven. He had a mission from the Father, which was completed at Easter. He has risen from the dead. He is alive. He has given the disciples their new roles and sent them into the world to continue the spreading of the Good News.
The Gospel story is one of movement. Jesus came down from heaven. He was lifted up on the cross. He descended into the grave. He was raised to new life. He ascends to heaven. The movement for the Son draws to its completion.
There is a purpose to all this. As the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it, “When he had brought about purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of God’s majesty on high.” (Hebrews 1.3)
But things do not return to how they were before. The world is not the same.
Already the Spirit was preparing to come upon the disciples at Pentecost.
In all of this there is a great sense of abiding in one another – the Father in the Son, the Son in the Father, we in Christ and Christ in us. Whatever great divide had been created by human sin before the coming of Jesus, that has gone. We may not see Jesus any more, but he is still with us – his final blessing that he gave as he ascended is still pouring out on the world.
It also means that we are already living our life in Christ in heaven. Jesus draws us into the godhead, into the divine, and so through Christ we can strive to be the people that God is calling us to be.
That is glorious indeed. The vision of Daniel in the Old Testament gives us the smallest of hints of what this is like, with the Ancient of Days, seated upon a throne of fire, as the “one like a human being” is presented to him and he is given “an everlasting sovereignty which was not to pass away.” (Daniel 7.13-14).
This reunion of Father and Son is supremely important as through it we too are invited to live within that kingdom.
Earlier this year we should have been on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but sadly due to the Covid-19 pandemic it was cancelled. It would have been my third visit to the site of the Ascension. The first time I remember being rather disappointed as we drove up to the Mount of Olives, near Bethany. Nowadays it is busy, with clusters of shops, takeaway restaurants and the olive groves have disappeared under concrete. It is not pretty, and I doubt Jesus would recognise it as the place he used to go to with his disciples on a regular basis.
I wanted to see it as Jesus had seen it, to imagine the Ascension as it happened. But the search for the historical Jesus does not necessarily help us in our journey of faith, just as I learned so many years before at my Confirmation.
However, the second time I visited I found myself smiling wildly as the coach dropped us off. Because however the Ascension happened – whether a physical lifting up, a fading into cloud, or a bursting into light – the key thing is that Jesus came for us. Ascension Day is one of the most joyful feasts because it underlines all that God has done for us, and is still doing.
“O Lord our Governor, how excellent is thy Name in all the world: thou hast set thy glory above the heavens!” (Psalm 8.1)
(Artwork: ‘Christi Himmelfahrt’ by Gebhard Fugel, c. 1893)