Ascension Day - May 21, 2020
So where did he go? Where did Jesus go when he ascended into heaven? Aren't you a little curious? Doesn't your twenty-first-century mind and its scientifically-educated perspective make you want to know where Jesus went? In Acts 1, Luke tells us that the disciples watched as he was lifted up and taken out of their sight. Does that mean, as is often depicted in artistic representations of the Ascension, that he rose higher and higher and higher until he blipped out of sight? And, if so, how high did he go? Anything above 26,000 feet won't provide enough oxygen to sustain human life. Or maybe you think Jesus vanished the way Obi-Wan disincorporated and became one with the Force. Or maybe you think the resurrected Jesus was more like a ghost than a person. Or maybe you think the whole Ascension Day story is just a metaphorical ending appropriate for the narrative of Jesus' life.
I don't know for sure, but I'll tell you what I believe and why I think it matters. I believe that Jesus physically ascended up into the clouds beyond the disciples' sight and was taken in bodily form to whatever realm or plane of existence where God dwells. Where that is or how we get there doesn't really matter to me, though I don't blame anyone for wanting to know. What matters to me is the fact that it was a physical ascension, and it matters because my hope depends on a body.
When I hear Christians talk about heaven or eternal life or the resurrection, most of them talk about those things as if they were a purely spiritual reality. Think about what words of comfort come most naturally to you when speaking to a friend about the death of a loved one. "She's in a better place now." "He's up there with Granny and Gramps." "She departed this world so that she could be with the angels." This is understandable given the ravages and struggles of life--especially old age. If you have cared physically for a dying relative, you know how hard it is for everyone. It is natural for us to think of heaven as somewhere that doesn't have the same corrupt physicality that this world has. While it is true that heaven is a place without corruption or suffering, it's also a place where bodies matter.
When God made the universe, God saw that it was good. When God made humankind in God's own image, God saw that it was very good. The nature of the created order was marred by sin--depicted as the moment when our primeval parents ate the forbidden fruit--but the restoration of what is fallen is not the escape of the physical order but the renewal of it. We do not hope to escape the physical reality we know. In fact, who we are is fundamentally physical. You are not yourself--you cannot be yourself--without your body, your mind, your brain. We may not know how it is possible for the resurrection to be a physical existence in a universe that is unable to persist forever, but the Ascension of Jesus--wherever he went--is a testament to our future physical resurrection.
In this time of pandemic, however, I am reminded that the physicality of the Ascension gives us hope in another important way. The Ascension is a necessary consequence of God's ultimate vindication of Jesus. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God reversed the world's condemnation of Jesus. The world would expect that one who was condemned, suffered, crucified, and executed would be the recipient of God's abandonment and rejection. In Jesus, God shows us that the opposite is true. More than that, God uses the suffering of Jesus to redeem the world and to give us hope not by allowing us to escape our own suffering but by inhabiting it alongside us.
The one who suffered on our behalf has ascended into heaven, where he sits at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us. Because he remains incarnate--because he is beside God in bodily form--the marks of that redemptive suffering remain in the sight of God. In a real, physical, tangible way, Jesus brings the fullness of our own suffering into the realm where the acorporal God exists.
We need to know that the suffering we endure is not a sign of God's rejection but a means by which God is brought near us. We need to know that our struggle is not empty or meaningless. We need to know that there is something better in store from us than an abandonment of the life we have been given. We need to know that the hope God has given us is more than a metaphor. We need to know that Jesus ascended into heaven to be that hope for us.