Christus ascendit

Ascension Detail

Ascension Day 2018


Then he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight—Acts 1.


13 May 2018

Jesus “was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.”

That is Luke’s account of Jesus’ Ascension from the Acts of the Apostles.

Let’s admit that many people feel awkward at this talk of Jesus’ elevation into the higher atmosphere.  Surely we cannot believe that heaven is somewhere above the clouds?  After all our satellites have been up there, along with the Apollo missions.

Yet this reaction misses the mark; so often we moderns prove ourselves tone-deaf to what I believe is (and was always intended to be) sacred symbol.

Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, gives a literary account of this event; and it is for good literary reasons that he says a cloud lifted Jesus up from the earth.  In ancient tradition, Moses himself was consumed by a cloud and suddenly disappeared at the end of his life (Josephus, Antiquities, book 4).  You will remember, too, that Elijah went up to heaven in a scene of high drama—not on a cloud, but in a whirlwind—as his son Elisha cried out “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”

So, of course, it was important for Luke to depict Jesus’ departure in a similar way: for here is one greater than Moses and Elijah!

But why a cloud?  The cloud symbolises the Presence of God.  When Moses encountered God on Mount Sinai, he was wrapped in cloud and thick darkness; as he led Israel through the wilderness forty years, the Lord God accompanied them, a pillar of cloud by day.  A cloud filled the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem: the cloud is what the Jews call the shekinah, the Presence of God.

So when we hear of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, we should, I believe, hear that he withdrew into the presence of God—whatever, in fact, might have happened historically.

But let’s dwell a little longer on symbols.  Where is Jesus now?  The Apostles’ Creed tells us that he sits on the right hand of the Father.  Are we to imagine, then, that Jesus is seated on a great throne in heaven?

What did St Augustine say to students (catechumens) preparing for baptism in the fourth century?  He said that the language of sitting down at the right hand of the Father is a symbol, referring to the blessedness of Jesus’ state.  If we take it literally then Jesus –

“sits on the right hand of the Father, [and] the Father will be on his left hand.  Is it consistent with piety to put them together [like this], the Son on the right, the Father on the left? [No, in heaven] it is all right-hand, because no misery is there.” (On the Creed)

Heaven is all right-hand, because it is all blessed.

So instead of asking how it is possible for Jesus to ascend to heaven on a cloud, and to sit down at the right hand of the Father—let’s ask, instead, about the meaning of these word-pictures.

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? 

I always loved that line: “why do you stand gazing into the heavens?”.  We have all gazed in wonder at the stars: and wonder is the beginning of faith, the beginning of wisdom.  The stars remind us that, for all our fantasies of control, we control little or nothing in the universe.  They remind us that we are made of the dust of the earth; but we are not, for all that, lacking in dignity.  We are part of a cosmic mystery.  Emerson in one of his essays called the stars “those tender and poetic stars”: and indeed they are poetic, for they have much to teach us.

Yet we cannot be star-gazers forever: we must come back to earth.  And that is what these two heavenly figures say to the disciples—these two, who probably represent Moses and Elijah; they say in effect: Jesus has not gone away forever.  He has withdrawn from sight, but he reigns, unseen.

This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go… He will come on the clouds of heaven, as the prophet foretold: I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven (Daniel 7).

He will come to establish justice on the earth: and now we, his disciples, must commit ourselves to the long course of history.

So do not stand gazing into the heavens.  There is a work to do here.

Jesus reigns, but now in a mysterious and unseen way, breaking forth in a thousand symbols.  He breaks forth wherever there is self-sacrificial love.  He appears always in the struggle for justice and humanity.  He lives, as one writer said, “a hidden furnace at the heart of history.”

That is, to me, the meaning of the ascension.

Jesus has entrusted us, his disciples, with the struggle for human dignity.  We join the struggle against the powers of the earth which would distort and confine humanity.  And, I’m sure you will agree, those are many.

It is easy to despair: it can often seem as if dark powers are getting the upper hand.  Yet, in truth, they are passing away.  Christ endures forever and ever: he reigns through the long course of history, like a flame flickering in the darkness—apparently vulnerable, but a light that cannot be put out.  In the end it will prevail.

Jesus ascends far above earthly powers.

Now he dwells among “those tender and poetic stars,” which shimmer by night, and which we can never master or control.

Now he sits at the right hand of the Father, where he lives and reigns.