John SmithSomewhere (notice plausible deniability here!) a story surfaced about a theological seminary, which was celebrating Ascension Day in gala fashion. However, unknown to the seminary Dean, an enterprising student had taken one of those tacky, plastic, life-sized figures of Jesus, and had equipped it with a large Fourth-of-July-type rocket. As the worshipers trekked through the chapel’s courtyard singing a great Ascension hymn, the student lighted the rocket, sending the Jesus-figure sailing into the air, buzzing the procession, and nose-diving onto the roof of a nearby dormitory where, for a moment, it threatened conflagration. The seminarian’s lame excuse that he was merely trying to dramatize his faith in the Ascension impressed no one — and still hasn’t.

The Ascension of Jesus is a staple chief Feast in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. If St. Augustine is to believed, its practice is lodged securely in the 4th century C.E., and quite possibly much earlier since it appears in early baptismal formulas quoted by Hippolytus early in the 3rd. century C.E., a precursor to the Apostles Creed.[1] From the 5th. century, the Ascension was sometimes celebrated in conjunction with either Easter or Pentecost although practices and depictions vary in the Western and Orthodox churches, and is firmly ensconced in the mosaics of art, poetry, and music.[2] Typically, it occurs 40 days after Easter, and 10 days prior to Pentecost, often now on a Sunday in the Western Church as a nod in the direction of higher lay participation. In some European countries, Ascension is marked as a public holiday during which schools and businesses are closed. At St. Philip’s this year, we will celebrate Ascension Day on May 9.

Because the Ascension figures prominently in the recitation of both the Apostles and the Nicene creeds, as well as in Book of Common Prayer seasonal liturgics and Confirmation, we Episcopalians often encounter Ascension language with a healthy dose of puzzlement, if not downright skepticism. When the modern mind encounters the biblical story[3] of Jesus appearing to levitate from the earth like a helium balloon, it causes some palms to sweat. No matter how you read it, the Ascension understood literally simply does not fit our scientific world-view. We are, after all, the children of Copernicus and Galileo, and since the beginning of space exploration we have known that nothing actually goes up — except taxes, the cost of living, and gasoline prices. We now understand that up isn’t really up, anyway; it’s more accurately out there. Consequently, for people like us whose minds are geared to the factual and the scientific, any clunky literal interpretation of the Ascension story threatens to give us an “Excedrin headache.”

Here let me make two important observations about biblical interpretation. First, it is clear that the mind-set of the biblical writers is quite different than ours. They were captive to the limited scientific concepts of their day. They accepted uncritically the primitive cosmology of their time which viewed the universe as composed of three distinct levels: heaven above, hell below, with the earth in the middle. Consequently, it was easy for them to picture Jesus ascending into the sky, from which he would someday return to the earth.[4]

Second, the biblical writers were much more concerned with the experience of faith than they were with scientific fact and detail. When, for example, they spoke of Jesus being “at the right hand of God,” they were not describing some heavenly geography, some event perceived in the time/space continuum; they were describing Jesus’ participation in the sovereignty of God over all things: Jesus is now God’s right-hand man, the one who takes charge, and who, in turn, gives this “charge” to those who follow him. Therefore, to write off the story of the Ascension simply because it is scientifically out of focus is as pointless as dismissing chapters 1–2 of Genesis because they are scientifically naive. Since when has the church really worried about whether Genesis or the Ascension stories were scientifically true? All the church, at its best, has ever claimed is that the stories are eternally true. Both Genesis and the Ascension are, at their heart, confessional affirmations of faith, not reports of scientific inquiry. That is why I believe the Ascension story must be taken seriously, even if we continue to question its literalness.

Think of it this way: the Ascension, like the Virgin Birth, is true metaphorically whether or not we accept its facticity. That is, the Ascension event is not less than fact; it is more than fact.[5] It expresses something profoundly true about the uniqueness of Christ. Frankly, for me, that is sufficient for admission to anyone’s creed. We Christians are not obligated to replicate the Queen in Alice in Wonderland who tried to believe half a dozen impossible things before breakfast! Our trust is in Jesus the Christ who has set the world on its ear. There is no need for rigid conformity of opinion about him, his ministry, or his teachings. Jesus Christ is the central fact of our Christian experience; all the rest is embroidery.

If the Ascension simply is dumbed-down to how Jesus appears to levitate into the sky, so what? What does the Church mean to say to us with this story? Try this on for size: 1) The Ascension declares that the Christ of God is the cosmic Christ. I take that to mean that Jesus is not the private property of Christians, or of the Church. 2) There is nothing in our human experience that God’s rule does not affect, whether economic, or technological, or political. There is no forgotten corner of human life that escapes God’s attention and care. Everything in life, no matter how common, how crude, how mean — everything is subject to God’s authority. And if everything is subject to God’s authority, then there is nothing that is immune to change! I think it was the late Anglican bishop John A. T. Robinson who said somewhere in his 17 published writings: “The Ascension is the sign God has placed in the window of the world saying, ‘Open under new management.’”

Obviously, the implications of the Ascension story are “gi-normous.” We who have been baptized into Christ’s life, and who understand and accept Christ’s call to ministry, we are avoidably plunged into confrontation, and often into conflict, with those who attempt to run the world contrary to the purposes of God.[6] If God’s claim is over the public and the private sectors, then nothing is immune to the Divine Presence. God will not be shut out of the lives of individuals, of communities, of corporations, of nations.

It follows, then, that wherever God in Christ has a claim, Christians have the responsibility to announce that claim, and to incarnate it through a theology of engagement. Perceptive believers understand that while faith may be demonstrably private, it must also be incessantly public. As the late theologian Robert McAfee Brown once put it:

One does not just “love God.” One loves God by loving (one’s) neighbor, seeing her/him as a child of God, as one for whom Christ died. So the Christian can never devote so much time to prayer that he(she) forgets about the sick, the undernourished, the victims of discrimination.[7]

Consequently, following Jesus is more than loyalty to the Church as “institution.” Following Jesus means living in the midst of the struggle, not standing on the sidelines looking on. It means being “Christian” in the big middle of the world that God loves without strings, where governments function, where politics is the game being seriously played, where issues of peace and justice are Bread for the Journey. The Ascension says that Christ is Lord, and we recognize and respect that Lordship by whom we vote for, how we exercise our stock options, where we make our financial investments, and for what reasons!

Notice in the Acts account that the disciples were asked to stop looking into heaven, and to concentrate on life around them. That means that the focus of the Ascension is not vertical — it is horizontal — it is not up, but out.[8] If, like the disciples of old, our eyes are fixed on Christ, we will find his Spirit present with us in the here-and-now, freeing us from suffocating cynicism and hopelessness, and nourishing us with the life-giving qualities of humility, compassion, and trust.

In point of fact, the Ascension is not about Jesus’ retirement! Even if our Lord did go up — he certainly didn’t go away!

—John W. Smith

Ascension painting

The Ascension, by Dosso Dossi, 16th century

[1]See Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987), 151ff., and Arthur Cu;shman McGiffert, A History of Christian Thought. Vol. I: Early and Eastern (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932), 157.

[2] Perugino, Dossi, Garofalo, Rembrandt, Giotto and Benjamin West all produced Ascension paintings; John Donne and Henry Vaughan wrote Ascension poems; Bach composed the Ascension Oratorio and several cantatas. In addition, there are numerous Ascension mosaics, illuminated manuscripts, and relief depictions.

[3] There are two main New Testament passages which posit the Ascension of Jesus: Acts 1:9-11, and a shorter version in Luke 24:50-53. Mark 16:19 also cites an Ascension event, but this verse appears in a closing section of Mark, vss. 9-20, widely disputed by biblical scholars who see this section as a spurious, later addition to the Gospel. Other pertinent NT texts interpreted as Ascension references include: John 6:62 and John 20:17, and Matthew 28:18-20, In Acts 2:30-33 and Ephesians 4:8-10, the Ascension narrative is offered as a fait accompli.

[4] For more detail on biblical cosmology, see John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity For a New World (San Francisco: Harper, 2001), 120. See also Carl Gregg, “Progressive Christianity on Ascension Sunday,” May 22, 2011, in Patheos, an ecumenical blog channel whose purpose is to foster dialogue about religion and spirituality.

[5] For a stimulation discussion of the balance between historical fact and larger metaphorical truth, see Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again For the First Time (San Francisco: Harper, 1989), especially Chapter 3.

[6] Cp. Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011), 178-180. Borg argues that to say, “Jesus is Lord,” means that Caesar is not Lord, and that God opposes “the humanly constructed world of domination, injustice, oppression, and violence.”

[7] Robert McAfee Brown, The Significance of the Church (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), 80.

[8] This suggestive analogy is from Mary Hinkle Shore, “Up and Out,” in the Christian Century, Vol. 124, No. 9 (May 1, 2007), 21.

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