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The Feast of the Ascension

June 2, 2011

Today the church commemorates the Feast of the Ascension, one of the seven Principal Feast Days of the Church Year.  Here at St. George’s, we anticipated this feast day last night with a Vigil Mass for the Eve of Ascension before our Bible study class.

Even though it is one of the seven principal feast days of the church year, some have found it to be one of the most confusing celebrations.  What does it mean that Jesus ascended into Heaven?  How is his Ascension different from His Resurrection?  Wasn’t the Resurrection the important part?  Did Jesus really get carried away on a cloud?  If he did, get he get wings and a harp?  (Ok, that last one wasn’t serious and in any event, the answer to it would be no.)

Both the end of the Gospel of Luke and the beginning of the Book of Acts tell the story of the Ascension, although it is absent from the other three Gospels.  Clearly, this was important to Luke as he put it in both volumes of his book (Luke was also the author of Acts of the Apostles).  Clearly it was also important to Paul, who wrote about it in several of his letters.  And clearly it was important to the early church as it appears in all three of the early church creeds: Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian.  What we know about it is that 40 days after his Resurrection, following several appearances to his disciples, and after promising his disciples that they would receive the Holy Spirit, Jesus was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.

I think to understand the event as best as we are able, we need to start with some space-time basics.  Taking the view that Heaven is not “up”, but is rather tangentially connected to the earth in a way we do not fully understand, but yet separated, it is important to understand that Jesus did not launch into outer space like the Rocketeer.  Heaven is not in outer space.  Heaven is another place and it is to that place that Jesus went; “ascended” just seems to be the easiest way to describe it given the limitations of human language.  If Jesus really did go “up” in the way that we might think about it, then that would mean he went “down” to someone on the other side of the world.

Next, the Ascension is different from the Resurrection.  When Jesus was Resurrected, his physical body once again had life in it.  We know from Scripture that he walked around, that he ate and drank, that he was able to be touched and felt by his disciples, though we also know that some physical limitations did not seem to apply as evidenced by the fact that he appeared in a closed off room to his disciples without entering by any known conventional means.  The Ascension was when that Resurrected body that was and is Jesus Christ went to Heaven.

So, that means that Christ did not stop being human at the Ascension.  Before and after the Ascension, Christ was and is both fully human and fully divine.  To begin to think otherwise reverts to any number of early church theological errors (read: heresies, namely, modalism and Nestorianism – I think, would have to check with a heresy expert to be sure though).  Consequently, that means that Christ is reigning from Heaven as a fully resurrected human being and a fully divine being.  This is important because, as Paul discusses in 1 Corinthians, Jesus is the example of what we believe will happen to us one day.  We believe it because Jesus shows us it in his own being.

If we believed that Jesus abandoned his physical body at the Ascension and became, so to speak, 100% spirit, then that would send us firmly into the realm of gnosticism and dualism, more theological errors.  Furthermore, it would throw serious doubt on the vision of John in the Revelation, where he clearly sees Jesus returning to earth one day in a body and not just as a spirit.  In that same vision, he brings with him all those who have died in Christ in their new, resurrected bodies, to continue and complete his reign, on earth.  What is begun in heaven is continued and completed on earth, in a manner of speaking, because of course we’re not talking about the earth as we know it.  Rather, we are talking about the new heaven and the new earth, joined together as one: God’s space and our space becoming the same space.  The Ascension is then the necessary precursor to that future event.

Even though we no longer see Jesus in the same way that his disciples did, we know Jesus is still with us through the Eucharist and through the Holy Spirit.  In the fulfillment of all things, we will experience God in Jesus Christ again in the flesh, as Jesus’ disciples did through one of two ways: we will already have died when he makes his return and we will be resurrected to return with him, or that return will happen in our lifetime and something else entirely will happen.  What, I have no idea.  Thanks be to God it isn’t our responsibility to figure that out!

All that is to say – Happy Ascension Day!!
Fr. Ryan+


P.S. – I always remember the Dean of my seminary preaching on this day and telling the story of when he was in seminary.  To celebrate Ascension Day, he and several friends strapped a plastic Jesus onto a bottle rocket and set it off.  His Dean was, apparently, not amused.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Fox permalink
    June 2, 2011 4:06 pm

    I can never remember the other six: Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, All Saints, ?????.

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