Happy Ascension Day!

Happy Ascension Day!  I’m sure you’ve waited all year long for this Thursday, May 18th, to celebrate the Ascension of Jesus from earth to heaven.  Your decorations are up, gifts are purchased, your guests will be arriving, the meal is ready.  Right?  

Yeah, I know.  Probably not.

Ascension Day (40 days after Easter) is one of those Christian holy days that has fallen off our radar not just because it doesn’t fall on a Sunday, but because it flies in the face of what modern science teaches us; more so even than the resurrection itself.  We get pretty defensive, after all, when someone starts questioning the law of gravity!

So what is the Ascension?  It is a biblical story found in the very beginning of the Book of Acts (Act 1:1-11).  This passage recounts the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry after his resurrection.  

In the account, Jesus commissions the disciples to carry on his work, tells them to await the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and then, while the disciples watched, Jesus ascended upward into the sky and out of their site.  An angel then appears and assures them that Jesus will one day return from heaven.

It is a story that a lot of educated, progressive Christians don’t know what to do with.  Even if you have accepted the bodily resurrection of Jesus as a miracle (which, itself, is a stretch for many), it is bridge too far to imagine that a cloud carried Jesus’ physical body off the earth and into the air; out of sight.

I think what is important to remember here is this:  Like most of the bible, the story of the Ascension is meant to convey truth, not facts.  That is to say: Where is Jesus?  He is now with God in heaven.  That is the bedrock truth of the Ascension.  The particulars of that transition from earth to heaven are secondary.

In fact, the reasoning behind this story from Acts may well be found in the first century notion that heaven is irrefutably located above the sky.  So, if Jesus was once on earth and is now in heaven, he could only have gone from point A to point B by means of ascension; ergo Acts 1:1-11.

It is also important to underscore that the bible itself contradicts itself when it comes to the Ascension.  In the last chapter of Luke, the Ascension of Jesus does not happen 40 days after the resurrection as in the Book of Acts.  It happens the same day as the resurrection.  In the story of the conversion of the Apostle Paul, the resurrected Christ appears to him decades after the Ascension.  Indeed, the idea that Jesus’ earthly ministry ended with the Ascension is contradicted by those who still have visions of him today.

In addition, we call the church “the body of Christ” for a reason.  We believe that Jesus’ life and ministry is physically present and active today through the church itself.  

In the end, our task as people of faith is not to understand the Ascension but, like so many biblical stories, it is to experience it.  

Acts 1:1-11 is an attempt by the first followers to Christ to explain their deeply emotional experience with Jesus both before and after his resurrection.  As we know, though, God is not confined to the bible and neither is Jesus.  God is still speaking.  

Consequently, here are a few questions to contemplate about the Ascension:

How is Jesus ascending in your life?  

Where is heaven located?  

Today, for you, does it feel like Jesus departing or returning?

How would our faith be different if we had a “Descension Day”?

See you in church,

–Rev. Dominic