To the average European today, Ascension Day remains on our western calendars as a left-over from some obscure religious past, another welcome spring holiday along with Easter and Pentecost. Few care or even think about its origin.
As believers, however, we can see its significance as the occasion when Christ commissioned his followers to ‘go into all the world and make disciples of all peoples’. But when we try to visualise what exactly happened on that day, our modern minds struggle to understand. Did Jesus simply levitate from the surface of this planet, like the astronauts we are now used to seeing on television do in their space rockets, and set course for some cosmic location called ‘heaven’?
Our limited experience of resurrected bodies does not really equip us to understand the ascension. In his book, Miracles, C. S. Lewis points out that the post-resurrection transformation is a first step toward a new creation that is yet to come—the new nature of the World to Come:
If the Risen Body were not objective, then all of us (Christian or not) must invent some explanation for the disappearance of the corpse. And all Christians must explain why God sent or permitted a “vision” or a “ghost,” whose behaviour seems almost exclusively directed to convincing the disciples that it was not a vision or a ghost but a really corporeal being. If it were a vision then it was the most systematically deceptive and lying on record. But if it were real, then something happened to it after it ceased to appear. You cannot take away the Ascension without putting something else in its place.
The records represent Christ as passing after death (as no man had ever passed before) neither into a purely, that is negatively, “spiritual” mode of existence nor into a “natural” life such as we now know, but into a life which has its own new Nature. It represents Him as withdrawing six weeks later, into some different mode of existence. It says—He says—that He goes “to prepare a place for us.” This presumably means that He is about to create that whole new Nature which will provide the environment or conditions for His glorified humanity and, in Him, for ours.
It is the picture of a new human nature, and a new Nature in general, being brought into existence. We must, indeed, believe the risen body to be extremely different from the mortal body: but the existence, in the new state, of anything that could in any sense be described as ‘body’ at all, involves some sort of spatial relations and in the long run a whole new universe. That is the picture – not of unmaking but of remaking. The old field of space, time, matter and the sense is to be weeded, dug and sown for a new crop. We may be tired of that old field: God is not.” – (from Miracles, p.149)
Concealed and revealed
Boggles the mind? Then perhaps this reflection by Malcolm Guite, ’Ascension’, will resonate with your being:
‘We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted in time and space,
As earth became a part of heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted,
He took us with him to the heart of things,
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and heaven-centred now, and sings;
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we ourselves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light;
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed.
The poet explains: “In the mystery of the Ascension we reflect on the way in which in one sense Christ ‘leaves’ us and is taken away into Heaven, but in another sense is given to us and to the world in a new and more universal way. He is no longer located only in one physical space to the exclusion of all others. He is in the Heaven which is at the heart of all things now and is universally accessible to all who call upon him. And since his humanity is taken into Heaven, our humanity belongs there too and is in a sense already there with him. ‘For you have died,’ says St. Paul, ‘and your life is hidden with Christ in God.’ In the Ascension Christ’s glory is at once revealed and concealed and so is ours.” (from Sounding the Seasons, Canterbury Press)
Till next week,