Out of their sight…..
A reflection on the significance of Ascension Day
Traditionally, in Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches (but not so much in the modern reform churches) Ascension Day is celebrated on a Thursday, 40 days after Easter Sunday and commemorates the day Jesus was taken up (returned) to heaven following His resurrection. Thursday 21st May 2020 is decreed as the date to celebrate this major festival day when the church intentionally gathers for the Divine Service of Worship and Sacrament. It is a HOLY DAY. At one time this meant compulsory attendance by confirmed members of the church. If we are honest. I suspect that many of us rarely spend much thought on the significance of our faith journey- it is off the radar and “Out of our sight” so to speak.
To be honest – how many of us ever spare much thought about the Ascension of Jesus Christ in our faith journey? Is it off the radar and “ Out of our sight” so to speak? And I wonder how many of us would have an answer to the provocative question Jesus raised (John 6:62) –
“What then if you should see the Son of Man go back to (ascend) where he was before?”
N.T. Wright (2008: p.111) in his book Surprised by Hope, suggests it helps us to answer this question if we understand that –
basically, heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space (time) or matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation. And the point about heaven is twofold. First heaven relates to earth tangentially so that the one who is in heaven can be present simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth: the ascension therefore means that Jesus is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on earth to find him. Second, heaven is, as it were, the control room for earth (literally for the whole of creation); it is the CEO’s office, the place from which instructions are given (per medium of the Holy Spirit). “All authority is given to me,” said Jesus at the end of Mathew’s Gospel, “in heaven and on earth.” (Matthew 28:18)
• Surprised by Hope, 111
Janet read the accounts of Jesus’ Ascension as told in Luke 24:44 – 53, Acts 1:1-11. There is a third account in Mark 16:19, which says – “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God”. In Luke 24:51 we read – “As he was blessing them, he departed from them and was taken up into heaven” In Acts 1:9 the account says – “After saying this, he was taken up into heaven as they watched him, and a cloud hid him from their sight”. Paul says Jesus was “taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16) and Peter says Jesus “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God” (1 Peter 3:22).
Now the fact that Jesus departed or returned to the Father in heaven could not have been a surprise to the Apostles. Jesus mentioned this on five occasions reported in John’s gospel he was returning to the father (John 7:33, 14:2, 14:12, 16:22, 24:17) and clearly spent considerable time talking to them and instructing them about this.
If we put these accounts together with the twelve occasions on which Jesus appeared post resurrection we have a glimpse of what was happening during these 40 days.
In these accounts we see a transition from despair eventually to questioning about the future and their part in this. Even in the last encounter we see them questioning Jesus about when the kingdom will be returned to Israel – for which they were not given a direct answer, but to go back to Jerusalem and await the coming of the helper.
Now somehow between Jesus giving them a blessing, and then disappearing before their very eyes, while they are continuing to look upwards after him, two figures (angels) appear to them and ask them why they are continuing to look toward the sky, there seems to be a gestalt, an understanding that this ascension was for real, that they needed to trust Jesus word that the promised Helper would come to them because we are told they worshipped him in great joy, spent time in the temple giving thanks to God and getting on with the task of engaging in the great commission Jesus charged them with immediately before his departure from their senses – one of the things they did was to elect a new member to the twelve apostles.
It is important to remember that the New Testament was written by men who, after their experience of the ascension, followed shortly after by their understanding that Jesus had indeed released the holy spirit within them, were thoroughly convinced that Jesus was at the right hand of the Father, and that through the ministry of the Holy Spirit they were in union (were connected with) with this ascended Lord and were, by His commission and through His ascended authority and power, left here to continue the work which He began.
One of the things they did was to produce an early version of the Apostles creed and also around 68 AD initiated one of the earliest holy festivals – the Festival of the ascension of Jesus. Ultimately in the time of Augustine in the fourth century the ascension festival became one of the first official festivals of the church and in 324 and 384 AD at an ecumenical council convened by Constantine the Nicene Creed (a modified version of the Apostles Creed) became the official statement of the articles of faith of the Christian Church. These creeds contained the words -:
“He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
as part of a short rich summary of the entire good news of the Gospel. The creed(s) describes the triune God, who turns toward humanity in the person of Jesus he descends from the heaven dimension, as the God-man takes on the limitations of the human condition of limited life span and capacity to demonstrate a kingdom lifestyle but nevertheless who suffered, died, rose again, and ascended i.e. returned to that heavenly dimension where he is restored to his position of glory and authority and who uses that authority to release the power of the holy spirit into the life of humans so they could continue to carry out the great commission. Additionally, the creed goes on to express our future hope, the purpose of living the Christian life and it sets out the minimum of Christian belief.
The problem for many in our modern largely secular society is that the cosmology and the conceptual underpinning of the creed, exemplified by the ascension statement it contains (among others), is seen as outdated non-empirical rationalist cognitive science lacks credibility and that these unquestioned unequivocal statements of belief are implausible and irrelevant. Add to this the propensity to deny that any other way of approaching knowledge and what is knowable, has an essentially logical positivist philosophy that champions individualism and libertarianism, and a socio-political economy and lifestyle that is driven by pursuit of personal power, wealth creation and consumerism, and an impatient desire for instant answers and instant gratification we have significant barriers to relevance and importance to our life journey.
The statement by N.T. White quoted earlier and the statement by C.S. Lewis in 1942 -who described the Ascension as:
…a being still in some mode, though not our mode, corporeal, withdrew at His own will from the Nature presented by our three dimensions and five senses, not necessarily into the non-sensuous and undimensional, but into, or through, a world or worlds of super-sense and super space. And He might choose to do it gradually. Who on earth knows what the spectators might see? If they say they saw a momentary movement along the vertical plane – then an indistinct mass – then nothing – who is to pronounce this improbable?” (God in the Dock, p. 35; also see “Horrid Red Things,” in Ibid. pp. 68-71).
point to our failure to see that the creeds are deliberately couched in language and a conceptual framework that is in large part myth, mysticism, folk lore, tradition, history, lifestyle, and temporal exercise of religious authority to show that the ideas put forward here are not an innovation to the “faith delivered once for all.” –and that this is the language that would be understood by the people they evangelised. Ironically we also do not appreciate the fact that there are more ways of knowing than purely cognitive processes and empiricism, and secondly that developments in so many scientific fields – psychology, neurosciences and even the fundamental sciences of physics and chemistry have advanced so far that they are beyond our ken, yet provide perfectly sensible explanations of the phenomena such as those observed and reported by the ancients, and which are equally opaque to us. I highlight the work of Stephen Hawking and others that have demonstrated through detailed modelling and experiment that there is a multitude of possible parallel universes with many more dimensional characteristics than the four dimensions of our material space-time universe – thus leaving open the creation of an entirely different dimension of creation that is contiguous and co-exists with our universe that we cannot access except under exceptional circumstances. Now that is some kind of Creator God and it makes for a very powerful argument about the importance of the ascension of Jesus dematerializing from our material space-time milieu into the heaven milieu.
We could probably have quite a lengthy discussion about why this is so.
Finally, there is a tendency for 21st century humans to cherry pick the bits they like from constitutions, mission statements, list of objectives and the like. So in the case of the creeds we tend to focus on the birth of a special baby and particularly the receiving of gifts at Christmas; and also the drama of the passion (trial), crucifixion and resurrection at Easter and let us not forget the consumer wunderkind of Easter eggs – both elements now heavily compromised by consumerism, and thirdly the cult of personal wellness and individual spirituality that seems to overwhelm the coming of the holy spirit as the driver of living a healthy kingdom centred lifestyle.
So what are the important things we can take away from the ascension event.
We no longer know Jesus as just a man, indeed He is the God-Man, but also we know Him no longer as the one who came to earth in the flesh. We must know Him now as the ascended, exalted, glorified Savior.
The ascension completes the resurrection. Without the resurrection Christ’s death would be meaningless as far as the great issues of life are concerned. And without the ascension, the resurrection would also be incomplete and meaningless. We would have a resurrected person, but not one who was now at God’s right hand in the place of authority.
It is important to remember that the New Testament was written by men who were thoroughly convinced that Jesus was at the right hand of the Father, and that through the ministry of the Holy Spirit they were in union, connected with this ascended Lord and were, by His commission and through His ascended authority and power, left here to continue the work which He began.
The Christ of the Gospels is the Christ of the past, the eternal past and the historic past, “but the full New Testament picture of Christ is that of a living Christ , the High Priest Christ who has completed the task of redemption and salvation and who continues to intercede for us the Christ of heaven, the Christ of authority, the Christ of experience, the Christ of the present and the future”.
The ascension legitimizes and underpins and affirms our faith that the Kingdom of God is ours now in our temporal earth bound life and that we too can pass through that transformation where we become dwellers of the heavenly kingdom for all eternity because of the connectedness we have with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (John 14:15-20)
This extensive article may be of interest to those who wish to follow up issues, questions related to the ascension of Jesus. Sadly I came across it rather late in my preparation for this reflection