Did you ever wish you were a bit thinner? Or maybe taller? Or had a little bit more hair on your head? Or maybe it’s something more serious, such as an addiction you wished you didn’t have. Or maybe you have had some trauma or grief in your past that you wish wasn’t so present in your heart. Or maybe you have elderly parents you’re taking care of and whom you can’t stop worrying about. Or maybe you have been unemployed for months and don’t see a job in your future anytime soon. Or maybe, just maybe, you are wondering what this all has to do with the Ascension of Jesus. Quite a bit, actually!
Like the Trinity or the Incarnation, the doctrine of the Ascension is open to quite a bit of misunderstanding. Many works of art depicting it have Jesus with clouds around his feet, his hands lifted upward, while his disciples are below him looking up, sometimes in awe and sometimes with blank expressions on their faces as if this is somehow a normal occurrence. And taken to their logical and literal conclusions, these works of art seem to imply that Jesus would have ascended up and up, breaking through the clouds, then through the earth’s atmosphere, and, eventually, Jesus would have started orbiting the planet, like a satellite. Pretty ridiculous, right?
The end of today’s gospel passage, St. Luke describes the Ascension very briefly: “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven.”
That’s it. One sentence. Jesus blessed them and left to go to heaven. Then the passage goes on to describe the response of the disciples: “Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.”
Whatever happened had something to do with the divine. How do we know this? The clue is in how the disciples respond. They don’t freak out or start debating what just happened. What do they do? They start to worship and they return to Jerusalem filled with joy.
So why would they respond like this in joyful worship?
Before Jesus ascends, he instructs. He wants to make abundantly clear that his story is a continuation, in fact, a fulfillment of a much larger story: the story of Israel. The gospel reading continues, “This is what I told you, while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
He goes on to open the minds of the disciples because the story of Jesus’ life, his suffering and rising from the dead, and his ascension, is not what they had in mind for the Messiah. And this is understandable. If we are really honest, most of us want a Messiah who will give us the answers, tell us what to do when things get rough, and certainly not leave us when we still need them!
But with Jesus, it is more complicated and more real. He is there blessing the disciples, and then suddenly is gone. He is present, then absent. He is on earth, then in heaven. He dies, then comes through death to new life. He visits, then abruptly leaves.
Jesus being taken up to heaven by God means something quite particular. It means that Jesus in all his full humanity – his whole life, all his emotions, memories, actions and relationships – is taken up to the divine. It is not his spirit or his essence or some disembodied soul that ascends. It is the transformed and resurrected Jesus, the Jesus in today’s reading from Acts, who for forty days met, ate, and instructed his disciples. The Jesus who still bore the scars from his earthly life.
This event is important not because it depicts some amazing feat of flight, but because it confirms that the life of this particular person, Jesus of Nazareth, is intimately connected to the life of the Creator of all that is, was, and ever will be. This is why we say in the Nicene Creed, “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
The particular gift of the Christian message is not that you will never suffer or struggle, but that when you do, God will be there with you. And not just with you, but helping to redeem these very experiences so that you don’t have to run from them or deny them or be ashamed of them, however awful or painful. The Ascension of Jesus means that humanity – all of us, everyone who ever existed, and whoever will exist – no longer has to hide any part of our lives from God. The Ascension is the message that humans matter in heaven. Our whole lives matter in heaven, not just the parts we like.
There will be times when you feel that you need to hide some part of your life from God. Maybe you have hurt people who are close to you. Or maybe you have been hurt so badly you feel particularly stuck in your life. These things are what the Ascension of Jesus speaks to – these very real moments. God wants to know all parts of your particular life so that all of us will be fully present in heaven.
“While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven.”
Thanks be to God!