Depending on which diocese you live in, either today (Thursday) or this coming Sunday is the Feast of the Ascension of Christ, in my opinion one of our most important, yet most underappreciated, solemnities. Why, for instance, is it so easy to move when it’s given a prominent place in every creed? Or why is it not a “Holy Day of Opportunity” for Catholics when there is such rich scriptural evidence that the early church considered belief in Jesus’ ascension into heaven a crucial part of the paschal mystery? In this post I want to give three quick problems we – or often my students – might have with the idea of Jesus’ ascension into heaven that might help further underscore how important the idea is not just for understanding the past, but for living our faith today.
Problem #1 – Where did he go? And wouldn’t he have exploded or suffocated once he hit the stratosphere?
One issue we have in 2014 that we didn’t have even a century ago is that the language of “ascending into the heavens,” as depicted in Luke/Acts and the longer ending of Mark, no longer quite makes sense to us. After all, we’ve ascended into the heavens too, and didn’t find the same celestial realm that our forebears in faith would have expected. And so images like the one above, from the medieval Great Hospital in Norwich, England, of Jesus’ feet hanging in the sky above the gathered disciples seem more quaint and amusing than spiritually serious. One begins to hear the Benny Hall music in the background…
But if one point of the incarnation and ascension is to take human bodies seriously, then we need a better image for a different age. The reality that the biblical language attempts to express is that the resurrected Christ ceased appearing to the disciples in the way that he had immediately after the resurrection. There would be no more touching of sides, brunch on the beach, appearing on the road to Emmaus, etc. That doesn’t mean that Jesus was no longer present to the disciples, or to us – but it does mean that his presence changed. To use the language of a theologian named Louis-Marie Chauvet, his presence would now include absence, and would involve the mediation of the Holy Spirit. It also mean that Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, Jesus the fully human being who died and was raised on the third day, was now fully in the presence of the Father – and fully means bodily.
But how would we express that in ways that make sense in 2014? How would we tell that story today, if the image of “rising up in the heavens” to indicate absence, abiding but mediated presence, and some sort of closure to the immediate post-resurrection appearances, no longer works? Well, luckily we have one, that keeps some of the verticality of the original image without the need for a space suit, thanks to Gene Roddenberry – Jesus, effectively, was beamed up. And I don’t mean that in a flip way – I mean that it might make sense to say that this very modern image might indicate 1) the end of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, 2) the complex dynamic of Jesus’ absence and mediated presence through the Spirit that we currently experience, and 3) the embodied nature of Jesus of Nazareth’s current “location” with the Father. But even if this works, this leads to two other, more interesting yet more challenging, problems.
Problem 2 – Why do we have to rely on the apostles’ testimony?
One issue that really understanding the closure of the resurrected Christ’s appearances to the disciples might lead to is a sense of frustration that we do not have the same experience. We might call this the “doubting Thomas” problem – why can’t I put my hands in his side and in the wounds on his hands? And, unsurprisingly, the Thomas account in the Gospel of John seems to be attempting to address this issue – after all, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29) So the rest of us end up relying upon the “testimony” of the “witnesses” – note how often this legal, trial-based language is used – that the paschal mystery, God’s raising of Jesus from the dead as a foretaste of our own destiny really did happen.
But relying upon the testimony of a group of women and men from a very different time and place 2000 years ago is, for many of us, as much a part of the boldness of faith as belief in the resurrection itself. Christian reliance on the scripture is deeply connected with the need for our faith to be “apostolic,” that is, to be constantly evaluating itself in relation to the original testimony of the apostles that Jesus is Lord, that in Peter’s words in Acts “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it.” (Acts 2:32) Jesus’ ascension is as much a factor in the birth of the church as Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we celebrate in 9 days, because if Jesus were not in some way absent, we wouldn’t need to depend on the apostles’ testimony – we frankly wouldn’t need the church to be “apostolic.” It’s a challenge to our faith, the challenge made to Thomas, but, it seems from John’s Gospel, also our only opportunity to be “blessed.”
Problem 3 – Well, if he has ascended into heaven, how does that change the way we think about his return?
This, it seems to me, is where the Feast of the Ascension is both most challenging and most important. Because the ascension forces Christians to talk more about eschatology, the set of ideas and doctrines about the return of Christ and the end of the world. Jesus’ presence-through-absence forces us to confront our need for the fullness of our redemption, and the completion of the paschal mystery. Following Tom Wright, I often talk about Christians having a “two-step eschatology” – one in which the events of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension in 1st century Galilee and Judea open up a new window in time some 13.82 billion years after the Big Bang. In these “last days” then, we are called to join in God’s project of preparation for the full reign of God in history.
Belief in ascension then is also belief in Christ’s return – “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ is coming” is another way of translating the familiar hymn that highlights some of the immediacy of the idea that Christians are called to live as disciples in fervent anticipation. The ascension doesn’t complete the paschal event in a way that closes the mystery, but in a way that opens the mystery up, to include us. But it is profoundly unsettling, if potentially empowering, to think of the mystery of Christ as not being a past event, safely defused and filed away in distant history, but as live, as radioactive, as still potentially destabilizing to us and to our world. To use the language of the theologian Lieven Boeve, the ascension “interrupts” the story, and prevents closure, allowing us, empowered by the fire of Christ’s Spirit, to interrupt the world in turn until Christ comes again. After all, if Jesus is no longer present except as mediated through us, then we, the community of disciples, are given a joyful challenge until he returns from the skies – or beams back into our plane of existence. But you could also see why we are hesitant to talk about this too much, and why we are quick to move liturgical observances. Living out the ascension of Christ, then, is about living out our call to make the absent-yet-present Christ present through our lives, which is why we it also begins the original novena – nine days of prayer until Pentecost – that the Spirit empower us to be that presence until Christ returns.
Note: I’m relying here largely upon four theologians who have significantly impacted my thinking on this – Douglas Farrow, N.T. Wright, Louis-Marie Chauvet, and Lieven Boeve. But as I’m currently at what’s going to be a great Annual Meeting of the College Theology Society, a professional society of teaching theologians and religious studies scholars (like us on Facebook!), I’m unable to provide much in the way of direct references. But I’d encourage you to check out the following books:
Douglas Farrow, Ascension Theology
Louis-Marie Chauvet, The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body
Lieven Boeve, God Interrupts History: Theology in a Time of Upheaval