Posted May 20, 2013
All early Christians believed that Jesus went to God after his death and resurrection. Only St Luke, in his Gospel and more especially in the Acts of the Apostles, tells us that Jesus physically ascended into the clouds, as in a vertical take-off, with the disciples left gazing up into the skies like spectators at an air show. Now that is an unforgettable image and heaven forbid that I should discourage you from holding it fast in your imaginations, if it helps.
On the other hand, it is not very logical, because heaven is not a place. Heaven is not ‘up there’, or even ‘over there’. Heaven is nowhere. It is not a place but a state of existence. It is God’s very being radiating through all time and space and yet utterly transcending the categories of time and space.
And in addition to it being illogical to speak of Jesus going ‘up there’ to heaven, it is also misleading and quite discouraging. Because as long as you speak of Jesus going up there, you imply that we are left down here. In other words, you emphasize departure, and distance, and separation and bereavement. That is not what Ascension is about. Far better to think of God as an ocean of love that surrounds us, in whom we live and move and have our being. And far better to think of the Ascension as Jesus entering into the heart of God’s being, bearing our humanity. Far from leaving us bereaved, Jesus takes us into a closer communion with himself and with God. The Ascension means not distance and bereavement, but intensified communion with God in Christ. As Jesus says in St John’s Gospel: ‘You, Father, in me, and I in you: and they in us.’ It is that ‘they in us’ that sums up the true meaning of the feast of the Ascension. It is a very joyful feast, not at all discouraging.
Here are some thoughts on Ascension Day which offer cause for rejoicing.
First, consider that the human nature which Jesus takes into God’s inner life at Jesus’ Ascension is not some abstract idea: it is the very stuff which you and I are made of. It is my human nature, and yours. Or, to put it more concretely, it is you and I. Then again, it is not you and I in some general sense, abstracting from all the peculiarities that make me inimitably me, and you uniquely you. It is me with my good qualities and my human potential, but also with all my weakness and my sadness and my problems and my sins; my past and my present and my future, with all those aspects of my past, present and future that make me rejoice, and all those aspects of it that make me fearful or regretful and ashamed. ‘Your life is hidden with God in Christ’, St Paul said. He meant every aspect, every moment, of that life.
So rejoice! Your sadness and your pains are in God’s hands, who will make of them something marvellous; your sins are there to be purified by God, your past to be regained and divinely reconstituted, your potential to be exploited to the full, as only God knows how. There is nothing of you that Jesus does not present to the Father to be mended, to be changed, to be approved, to be loved. So again I say, rejoice.
There is another aspect of this feast of the Ascension that should gladden us, and it has to do with what I said earlier about Ascension being not about departure, and distance and being left behind, but rather about closeness and wonderful intimacy with the Lord. For if we are separated from the Lord, it is only by the thinnest of veils, which will one day be lifted in the twinkling of an eye, as when Mary of Magdala in the garden suddenly recognized her Lord even while she lamented his absence. The Lord is not absent. He is there, face to face with you. Cling to him, as Mary did, and rejoice.
And there is a further aspect of this, which is just as real, and just as relevant. For what is said of the Lord being there behind the thinnest of veils, must be said of our deceased loved ones too. We must all one day be deprived of the physical presence and visibility of our loved ones. It is part of being in time and space. But our loved ones do not depart. They do not go ‘up there’, leaving us ‘down here’. They are closer to us now than ever they were. Nothing is ended, only changed. They are still ours. God knows that, and he is able to instil into our union with them the same immediacy, the same everlasting security as exists between Father and Son. When Jesus said: ‘Father, may they be one as you, Father, and I are one: you in me and I in you, may they be perfectly one’, he was thinking of me and you in relation to our friends and loved ones, of that union among Jesus’ disciples which reaches its perfection through Jesus’ return to the Father. For it is through Jesus’ return to the Father that that prayer of Jesus is answered. ‘I will not leave you orphans’ – nor companionless. It is through Jesus’ return to the Father that we share with the Father and the Son the consciousness of loving and being loved like never before, without fear of any distance or ending. ‘Console one another with these words’, St Paul said to the Christians at Thessalonica who were mourning the death of their loved ones. ‘Do not grieve as those people grieve who have no hope.’
We share in Jesus’ Ascension above all in the Eucharist. Here we bring into God’s presence our very selves: we bring our daily tasks and our commitments and our worries and our problems; our responsibility for one another and for the world; our tears, but also our laughter and our enjoyment of God’s creation. Jesus wants to offer to the Father our entire persons, the work of our hands and the fruits of our suffering. Let us say yes to it all, and rejoice, and be at peace.
Fr Tom Deidun