THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD

INTRO We have been celebrating Jesus risen and appearing among His disciples for  a period of 40 days (Acts 1: 3) and today the Church celebrates Jesus return to the Glory of the Father, an event of salvation we call ‘Ascension’. We have the Icon of the Ascension her in this prayer room, beneath our Paschal Candle. As always with icons it seeks to express the mystery rather than illustrate the event. It seeks to proclaim the glory rather than tell us what happened…More clearly perhaps than any other facet of Jesus life – in the flesh or in the Resurrection – the Ascension is so clothed in symbolism that it is clear we are confronted with the early Church’s experience of the Divine mystery and grappling for ways to describe the experience and its effect more than the event itself.

[1] First we need to understand the ‘cosmology’ of the time of Jesus – how they understood the structure of the universe. They saw Creation as in three sections – the flat earth (supported by pillars or huge animals); the ‘underworld’ or ‘hades’ the dark place of half-life where the dead are buried (‘descend’); above a semi-circular dome lit by sun in the day and moon and stars in the night. and Heaven where God and the Angels lived was above the dome looking down on the world and its inhabitants. So Heaven and God where ‘up there’ somewhere, transcendent and beyond, and angels were the messengers who ‘descended’ to communicate messages from the Divine world and then ‘ascended’ to return to God. With this ‘world-view’ or understanding of the structure of the Universe (which was less a scientific than a spiritual understanding) it made perfect sense to think of ‘descending’ from and ‘ascending to’ a place called ‘heaven’. However of course our understanding of the Universe and its structure is vastly different, informed by science. Such a physical ‘ascension’ (like a rocket from Cape Kennedy) makes no sense. So the Ascension of the Lord was a real spiritual experience, but not a physical event. The Resurrection of Christ takes us into a different realm, beyond the normal physical experience into the ‘spiritualisation of matter’, just as the Incarnation itself does. This does not mean that the Ascension is not true – it means that it is truth of a different character. Theological truth and scientific truth are equally God’s truth, for all truth is of God.

[2] It is worth noting briefly that both in the Hebrew Scriptures and in non-biblical literature, ‘ascension’ is not unique to Jesus Christ: in the Bible there is reference to the ascension of both Enoch and Elijah, and of many angels. In extra-biblical literature, both Jewish and pagan, there are many stories of ascension. Clouds, mountains and angels often figure in these stories., as they do in the Gospel Ascension narratives. This shows that the New Testament writers are using a familiar ‘literary form’ or contemporary ‘myth’ to express a profound spiritual experience – just as we see in the passages about God’s creation of the Universe in Genesis ch 1 and 2. However, the key difference in Christ’s ascension is the promise to remain among us, not to leave us ‘orphans’ (John 3: 13-14), but the Ascension was a way of remaining among us in a new and indeed deeper way – indicated by the ‘joy’ which the disciples left the scene and continually praised God in the Temple (Luke 24: 51-53). 

[3] There are essentially three images of experienced ceremonies in the Ancient World of the Middle East that have informed how the accounts of the Ascension experience are expressed in the New Testament accounts. They express three theological dimensions of the spiritual meaning of Christ’s Ascension.

(a) Royal Enthronement ceremony: Ancient Middle Eastern coronation or enthronement ceremonies  involved building a kind of staircase towards the sky and the new King would ascend the staircase and be seated on a throne. Meanwhile priests would burn great quantities of incense that created a cloud into which the King would ‘disappear’ from sight. This ritualised the understanding of the role of kingship: that the King represented his people to God and God to his people. This is how Judea and Israel understood the role of their kings and why the prophets criticised them so much when they failed in this task. The King was therefore a ‘corporate’ person or image – representing the people and exercising the rule of God among them. In that role they were called the ‘Son of God’, adopted as God’s son in their royal role. Their failure to perform this essential role was seen as the cause of the suffering of the whole people. So the Ascension is expressed in the language of the Enthronement of Jesus as the Messiah King – furthermore, it was seen, especially by Mark (who stresses the question – who is this Jesus and portrays Him as being constantly confronted with disbelief to the end even from his own disciples) as the moment when the Father acknowledged Jesus as the Divine Son. Jesus is acclaimed as King of Heaven and Earth and exalting Him as the ‘Name above all Names’(Philippians 2: 9-11) in this most radical ‘lifting up’ (John 3: 13-14). We are gathered into the Ascended, glorified Body of Jesus Christ and we too are enthroned at the right hand of the Father in Christ, as is expressed in our anointing as ‘priest, prophet and king’ at our baptism. The Ascension is the great Feast of Christ the King, the Feast of our human dignity now that our flesh is enthroned at God’s right hand and the Feast of Mission as we are sent to transform our world into that Kingdom of Justice, of Love, of Peace, of Beauty, of Freedom, of humanity’s equality.

(b) Victorious King or General returning from war in a victory procession: when a conquering general returns after the successful campaign there was a triumphal procession – the General comes first, then his troops and then the slaves and captive people and all the spoils of war – the treasures stolen from the vanquished people. He would often ascend a staircase to the enthrone King taking with him the booty of war as a gift to the the King. The Ascension of Jesus is the return of Him who conquered the greatest enemy, death, and brings the ‘captives’ – only we are ‘captured’ by faith and love and ‘captured’ only to be set free with the liberty of the children of God. As Paul writes in Philippians 3: 12 & 14, ‘I have not yet won, but I am still running, trying to capture the prize for which Christ has captured me … I am racing for the prize to which God calls us upwards to receive in Christ Jesus’

(c) The High Priest entering the Holy of Holies in the Temple on the Feast of Yom Kippur (the Great Day of Atonement). In the letter to the Hebrews the sacrificial redeeming work of Jesus is compared to the High Priest (Hebrews 2: 17 & 4: 14), especially on the great day of Atonement – this is the only day of the year on which the Hight Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple – to go beyond the curtain into the very presence of the God of Israel. He took with bulls blood as a sacrifice for the sins of the people. At that moment he was in a sense ‘deified’, caught up in the divine. In the Ascension, Jesus enters the real Holy of Holies, not made by human hands, and takes with him the one and only sacrifice – Himself, His own body and blood given for the life of the world, for the redemption and forgiveness of all the sin of the world for all time (Hebrews 9: 11-14 & 23-28).

[4] The Ascension of Jesus is our Mission to go out to the whole world. Each Gospel account of the Ascension of the Lord (and including Luke’s in Acts of the Apostles)  carries with it the ‘Great Commission’ – to go out as witnesses (Luke 24: 47-48 & Acts 1: 8), to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28: 19-20), to proclaim Good News to all Creation (Mark 16: 15), to be sent as the Father sent Jesus to continue His work (John 20: 21-22). The Church is Mission, before it is anything else. In a sense, Jesus gives us but two commandments – the love one another as he has loved us (ie sacrificially), and to go to the world as missionary disciples of the Victory of Love and so build the Kingdom.

AFTERWORD There are two great questions for us as Christians and as Christian  communities:
Do we live the immense human dignity that is ours expressed by the Ascension of Jesus which is our ‘Ascension‘ into Divine glory (which also means proclaiming and working for the inalienable dignity of every human person, healing people and structures of everything that wounds human dignity)?
Are we truly a People of Mission – is that the first and greatest priority for our parish communities, our over-riding purpose, to be Good News to all Creation, witnesses of a revolutionary New Order, New World which is not fatal utopian idealism or illusion, but authentic Kingdom  Reality?  

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