I'm sure you remember that scene from Star Wars Episode IV, when Obi Wan, while fighting Darth Vader, turns to see young Luke Skywalker and chooses to disincorporate. He isn't dead, of course. Vader steps on the cloak, which is lying on the floor where Obi Wan once stood. Now Obi Wan is one with the Force, and his ability to assist Skywalker is enhanced. I remember a friend of my stressing the word "disincorporation" to describe what had happened. He didn't die. He didn't disappear. He became acorporal.
Today is Ascension Day, and it's worth noting that, although today is the day when we remember how Jesus disappeared from the earth in order that his death and resurrection might become efficacious for all of humanity (see below), he didn't disincorporate. His incarnate body ascended into the clouds and up into heaven (wherever that is), where he sits at the right hand of the Father, forever interceding for the sake of God's people.
I feel like there are three approaches to Ascension Day and, more generally, the doctrine of the Ascension: 1) ignore it completely, which is what most of us do, 2) celebrate it without bothering to ask what it means and why it is important, or 3) to embrace the Ascension fully and, at the same time, admit that it's one of the most puzzling things about our faith. It won't surprise you to know that this blog post is about the third option.
If Jesus really did ascend into heaven, where did he go? Did he just keep going up, up, up until he left earth's atmosphere? If so, how did he breathe? If not, to where did he disappear? Did he become pure spirit and leave behind his incarnate body? If so, was the Incarnation just a passing phase? Why didn't Jesus just ride off into the sunset? Other than a cool story that has inspired strange artwork, what difference does the Ascension make in the Christian faith? What difference does it make in my life?
I have the luxury of spending 364 days each year not worried about the Ascension, but over the past decade or so, that compilation of thought from one day out of each year, has helped me get a better sense of why the Ascension. I don't understand it--it's a mystery, which is to say unable to be understood--but the Ascension is becoming a more substantial part of my faith, and I think my faith is better because of it.
For starters, we believe in the physical resurrection. Psychologists will tell you that you aren't you without your brain. Theologians and preachers, if they're worth their degree, will tell you the same thing. We are not spirits in a mortal shell. We are human beings--mind, body, and spirit. You can't be a human being without your mind, and you can't have a mind without your brain. Everlasting life doesn't make sense without a physical resurrection. More simply, the promise that Jesus makes to us that he will come again and take us to himself, to the mansion prepared for us, is an empty lie if that experience isn't conscious at some level, and you can't have consciousness without a body. So, when Jesus ascends into heaven as the bodily resurrected person that became incarnate, he shows us that our hope is bigger than a mindless spiritual existence. And, to me, that's important.
How it all works is a bit of a problem. Don't forget that one day this universe will end. Scientists aren't sure how or when, but they're sure that either all energy (and matter and life) will eventually die out, and there will be nothing, or all energy (and matter and life) will recoalesce in a reversal of the Big Bang known as the Big Crunch. Either way, we don't exist in this universe--at least not in any real, bodily way. So, when Jesus ascends into heaven, he shows us that his body has to go somewhere where it can persist beyond the limits of this universe. He is bodily in the presence of God, but he cannot be present, therefore, in this physical universe. I trust that he is present bodily in another plane of existence that coincides with this universe but that only intersects it in moments of divine interaction (again in ways I don't understand). But my answer to the physics of the universe's eventual death is to say that I still hold onto a belief in the physical, everlasting resurrection, and the Ascension shows me how that might be possible.
Lastly (for this post), don't forget the pre-modern importance of the Ascension, which is still relevant today. Without the Ascension, we don't have access to the universal, timeless efficaciousness of the resurrection Jesus. He is incarnate, but he is powerful beyond those within his physical grasp. He is present with me in Decatur, Alabama, in real ways. Likewise, he is present with those in Sydney, Australia, in the same real ways. Without splitting Jesus in ridiculous, non-sensical ways, that's not possible without the Ascension. Also, our very real, physical needs are held before God by the one who is human just like us yet who is also divine, Jesus Christ our Great High Priest. He has entered into the real presence of God and taken us with him. If he is not incarnate and if he is not ascended, we're still stuck in the pretend world of atonement drama. Instead, as we read in Luke 24, our worship of him is fulfilled after he has ascended: "While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God..
Paul wrote that without the empty tomb Christians are of all people the most to be pitied. Given the science of the twenty-first century, I'd add the Ascension to that statement. If we lose our grasp on our belief in the Ascension of Jesus, we give up on a Christianity that makes sense in the contemporary world as well as the ancient world. No, I don't understand it. How can anyone? It doesn't make sense, but it is beautiful. Today, stop and consider the Ascension of our Lord. How is it making a difference in your life and faith? Don't give up on it. I think it is as important to our hope as Easter--not dissecting it but believing it. Our hope is larger that the future of this planet and this universe. Our access to God is bigger than one place, one time. And all of that is true because of what we remember today.