On Thursday we celebrated Ascension Day, although with the current need for social distancing there would have been few if any gatherings for services on the tops of church towers, and the summits of local hills. It is a festival which has little attention beyond the church, but it is important to get to grips with its meaning, especially given current circumstances. Does it mean that this Jesus, who was so involved with all the human beings he met during his earthly life, has now left us and is no longer involved in our affairs? What happened, why did it happen, and how is it relevant to us now?
In our first reading we heard that Jesus’ ascension was expressed by the writers of the New Testament as “going up”, because they lacked a way of expressing what had occurred. Early Christians and indeed, Jews and Greeks, were content to speak metaphorically when it was difficult to describe literally what they had experienced. After all, we speak of “going up into the next form at school,” but we don’t mean we will henceforth be walking three feet off the ground. Whatever the case, it was clear that a startling and unparalleled event had occurred to add to the list of recent experiences for the disciples.
For those first disciples were already in an area of the unknown and the revolutionary, since the resurrection of Jesus had opened up a whole new way of perceiving him, his teaching, and indeed, themselves. However, we should not collapse the resurrection and the ascension into one united event; each contains unique significance and stands on its own as having enormous importance. After his resurrection, Jesus was both recognizable in some ways, but not others, and able to carry out very human actions, like eating; yet he could come and go at will through closed doors. He clearly had a body of some sort, but with radical differences from that which had been his during the rest of his earthly ministry. And it is in this new body, yes, body, which Jesus ascends to be re-united with his Father in the heavenly realms. The point is not how he got there, but the fact that Jesus ascended as a human being, and as such still reigns in heaven.
had made it plain to his disciples before his death that he would have to leave
them, and it became clear that he was not simply speaking about a short-term
separation through his crucifixion. For his ministry to continue, Jesus needed
to be released from the limitations placed on him by life on earth. In
returning to the home which he inhabited before his incarnation, Jesus was not only leaving behind, in the material world, an inheritance of his teaching and example, but he was also taking with him up into God, our humanity. There he continues his work of interceding on our behalf, but he is also Lord of all created things reigning at the right hand of the Father.
The consequences for us of the ascension are considerable. It was the final step in Jesus’ ministry which made the release of the Holy Spirit possible to all his followers. Until he left the earth, that could not happen, which meant that the disciples lacked the full power of God within them to continue the work of Jesus here.
The ascension also meant that God’s new creation, begun as Jesus was raised from the dead as the first-fruits of it, could fully come into being. All disciples since that time have become a part of it, being born anew at baptism into this new existence, not fully recognized in this life, but coming into its fullness after death. Our own unique version of something like that resurrected and glorified body of Jesus which ascended, will be our inheritance in the time to come. None of this is possible if Jesus had not ascended.
All of this leaves us to play our part, as his disciples in this world, being aware of a reality which so many people ignore or are unable to see. The enormity of the events of Jesus’ life on earth are revealed in his return to God, as the final ratification of his full nature as completely human but also Son of God, is made eternally clear. This is the one we worship, not just a cute baby in a stable, nor a tragic apparent failure on a cross, but the resurrected and gloriously ascended Lord, seated at the right hand of God.
Does this mean that Jesus is now loftily unaware of our current struggles and worries? That is absolutely not the case; the ascension does not mean that he has deserted us to deal with our problems on our own. Where Jesus is, is beyond our physical sight, but it is within our experience that he is as deeply and personally present to us as he was to his first disciples. We experience his presence through the Holy Spirit and also through the sacraments. His interceding presence with the Father, and his presence with us through the Spirit, means that he is powerfully involved with all humanity. As Rowan Williams has said, “The risen Christ says, ‘In the depth of this reality I will speak, I will be present, and I will transform.’” We can go on with whatever lies ahead, in the certainty of his continuing presence with us, day by day.