I have moved in Christian circles all my life, with varying degrees of consciousness of what was/is going on. In church last Sunday I heard my first ever sermon on the Ascension – or at least the first I can remember. I particularly liked the idea that the rebuke issued to the disciples – ‘why are you standing here looking up into heaven?’ – is a rebuke that can be leveled at us today. We spend so much time looking up and concerning ourselves with things above that we are often little use in the world around us. At least part of our mistake is in thinking that some day we are going ‘up there’ to join him rather than hearing the second part of the angel’s message, that one day he is coming ‘back down’, in the same way they saw him go.
But despite this sermon I’m still left with the impression that the Ascension is the black sheep in the family of doctrine. Or it’s the drunk uncle that we like to keep hidden away because he is an embarrassment to the family.
And while I like to think that I have a degree of theological sophistication, and I know about the theology of this act being the ascension to Lordship and the demonstration of Christ as King over all. My confession is, I still want to know WHAT HAPPENED? What did they see and not see there on top of that hill?
We have acres of paper dedicated to apologetics ‘proving’ the resurrection, sermons are preached every Easter Day amassing ‘evidence’. But where is the ascension in all of this? Thank goodness it’s a Thursday!
NT Wright tackles the issue in his book Surprised by Hope (review here) and tries to make sense of our thinking by reference to developments in our understanding of time and space. That ‘up’ may not mean physically into the air, but ‘up’ as in a promotion. That heaven and earth are existing in close proximity but different dimensions. He writes,
It’s one thing [to show how all this theology fits together]. It’s quite another to be able to envisage or imagine it, to know what it is we are really talking about when we speak of Jesus being still human, still in fact an embodied human – actually a more solidly embodied human than we are – but absent from this present world. We need, in fact, a new and better cosmology, a new and better way of thinking about the world than the one our culture, not least post-Enlightenment culture, has bequeathed us…The mystery of the ascension is of course, just that, a mystery. It demands that we think what is, to many today, almost unthinkable; that when the Bible speaks of heaven and earth it is not talking about two localities related to one another within the same space-time continuum or about a nonphysical world contrasted with a physical one but about two different kinds of what we call space, two different kinds of what we call matter and quite possibly…two different kinds of what we call time. We post-Enlightenment Westerners are such wretched flatlanders.
So that’s that cleared up then!
But isn’t it intriguing?