Today is Ascension Day, which commemorates the end of the forty days of Jesus’ earthly appearances after his resurrection, and his ascent into heaven. The story itself, as related in the Acts of the Apostles, is as simple as it is odd:
As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1.9-11)
If these images are taken too literally, the story becomes comical, even ridiculous. This is why most Renaissance paintings of the Ascension, aiming as they do for what we might call a ‘heightened realism’, struggle to portray the event well, making it look like Jesus was hovering or even taking flight like Superman. The formal iconographic tradition manages it better, placing Jesus in a mandorla, a blue and gold almond-shape used to show that was is being portrayed depicts a spiritual truth, something visible to the heart and not necessarily the eyes. This difference in Christian art offers us a helpful reminder: When it comes to the Ascension, it’s important to keep the focus on what it means, and not on what it looked like.
Traditionally, Ascension Day has been understood as the enthronement of Jesus as King, what the Scriptures refer as him “exalted at the right hand of God” (Acts 2.33). This language doesn’t mean as much to us as it did to its first-century Jewish audience, but we might say that the Ascension means that from then on, the man Jesus is where God is, sits where God sits, reigns where God reigns. In the Ascension, the ancient Christian saying, “God became human that the human might become God” takes on a shockingly literal meaning. If the Incarnation filled humanity with divinity, the Ascension fills divinity with humanity.
As the late theologian and peace activist Walter Wink noted in his memoir Just Jesus, the Ascension “captures the sense that this figure, exalted from ignominious execution, shame, and abandonment, has become the ‘highest’ value in the universe, the criterion of value itself …” Continuing this thought a little later, Wink adds:
The image of God, and other related images, thus underwent fundamental mutation. Jesus, as it were, infiltrated the Godhead. The very image of God was altered by the sheer force of Jesus’ being. God was, in Jesus, taking on a human face. God would never be the same. Jesus indelibly imprinted the divine; God everlastingly entered the human. … From now on, Jesus’s followers would experience God through the filter of Jesus.
For Christians, the Ascension is an expression of our fundamental belief that the heavenly and earthly, the spiritual and the material, the divine and the animal, are forever united. There is no division. And what God has joined, no one can tear asunder.
This may seem all rather metaphysical and abstract. But more practically speaking, it means that the more closely our lives resemble Jesus’, the more closely we resemble God. Unity with God is not something impossible or elusive, but is available to all of us. As Paul puts it in today’s Epistle reading,
[W]hat are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power! God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. (Ephesians 1.18-21)
The very same power of that raised Jesus from the dead is at work also in us, raising us to new life, every day, here and now. The very same power that exalted Jesus forever in the Ascension is at work also in us, exalting us to our full potential as those created in the image and likeness of God, every day, here and now.
These are big, heady and heavy teachings. What can we do in response to them? Simply accept this glorious and gracious inheritance, give thanks to God, and allow ourselves to be changed, raised to new life and exalted in our humanity.