Where did he go? Seriously, where did Jesus go? I want to know. I’m an Augustinian, Calvinist, everything-needs-an-explanation Christian, and I want to know where the heck Jesus went.
Today is Ascension Day. It’s 40 days from Easter Day, and today we celebrate Jesus ascending into heaven. (Wherever that is. More about that in a minute.) Along with Easter, Christmas, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, All Saints’ and Epiphany, it’s a principal feast of the church. There are seven, which means that today is one of the seven most important days in the Christian year. And it’s also, for me, the most confusing.
For me, understanding an observance in the church involves understanding three things: 1) where did this observance come from, 2) why was this observance worth remembering, and 3) why does it still matter today. Christmas I get—incarnation, Jesus’ birthday, etc.. Easter? Yeah, I get that, too. Pentecost, Epiphany, and even Trinity Sunday I get. I’m a little unclear about All Saints’ Day, but I think I can wrap my mind around why we need to stop and remember all the saints (at least in principle). But Ascension Day?
First, where did it come from? Jesus had to go somewhere. He was raised from the dead as the firstfruits of the resurrection that is to come. That means he cannot die again. But clearly he’s not around anymore. So he needed to leave. The ascension makes sense. He had to get to heaven somehow, and being raised up into the clouds as the disciples looked on is as good a way as any. But where is heaven?
Jesus is incarnate. He was raised in physical form. As the resurrection appearances attest, that might not be quite the same physical form as his pre-resurrected self, but body is clearly involved. And he is still incarnate—or so we believe—but where did he go? At some atmosphere, the amount of oxygen thins out to the point at which life cannot be sustained. Plus, it gets really cold up there. Plus, where is up there anyway?
Here’s my problem with Ascension Day. I get the second and third parts of the observance. It was important to remember because the Ascension is the testament to the world that Jesus’ reign and authority and efficaciousness is ongoing. In other words, if he simply rides off into the sunset and disappears, we don’t have access to his power. He has to be exalted (key word) to the heavenly realm in order to transcend the temporal specificity of his approximately 33 years on earth. And it’s still important to remember because we aren’t worshiping a God of the past. Our God reigns today. Of course it’s a principal feast of the church.
But where did he go?
Heaven is up. We’re taught that when we’re little kids. Where is God? He’s up there…somewhere. But, with the other persons of the Trinity, God is acorporal. God doesn’t need a physical dwelling place. But God the Son is incarnate. Jesus is still Jesus. So where did he go?
My answer? He went wherever we’re going. I don’t know where that is, and I don’t have to know. Did he ascend into the clouds but then vanish off the radar screen when he hit 15,000 feet? Maybe. Was his exaltation kind of like Obi Wan Kenobi’s disincorporation? Was he assumed into the Force? No, that’s not quite right. But it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that we’re going there, too.
Where is heaven? If it’s contained in this universe, we’re in trouble because, whether by heat death or by big crunch, eventually this universe will be destroyed. Cosmologists tell us that, and I tend to believe them. In the face of science, it’s easy to dismiss the physicality of our hope. Bodily resurrection? Impossible. But that can’t be right. All that is must be reconciled—that means body and soul. Our hope lies precisely in the inexplicability of Ascension Day. We can’t know the answer now. Jesus going up into the clouds doesn’t really make sense, but neither does much of what we believe in. And, for me, that’s what makes Ascension Day worth observing. We celebrate that the physical Jesus went somewhere/somewhen/someway. We cannot see beyond this universe. But we can see that Jesus is gone before us.