When speaking of the first cosmonaut in space, Nikita Khrushchev declared, “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any God there.” The story goes that at the time, a man asked his grandson, a young priest, why God was not in fact encountered, especially since the Bible itself says Jesus ascended right up there into the sky. His clergyman grandson responded, “Grandpa, when the Bible talks about Jesus ascending into the sky, this is a spatial metaphor for the transcendentality of the divine.”
“Oh, I see,” said his grandfather. “So you’re saying those danged Ruskies just didn’t fly high enough.”
Thus are the typical results of good theology mixed with bad pastoral practice.
There is a problem in expressing the theological meaning of the Ascension. Put simply, how do you speak historically about something that eludes the physical categories on which history depends? The answers the Evangelists would give include “freely!” This is most assuredly the case with Luke. In his Gospel, Luke says that Jesus ascended on Easter evening at Bethany. But in Acts, the same Luke tells us that Jesus ascended from Mt. Olivet 40 days after the resurrection. In our Gospel reading for today, Mark suggests that the ascension took place on Easter evening from the upper room.
What seems obvious is that the empty tomb is fact and that the disciples experienced powerful, overwhelming experiences of the risen Lord. This raised Christ, however, was also profoundly different. Mary Magdalene did not recognize him until he called her by name (Jn 20:16); other disciples both worshiped him and doubted at the same time (Mt 28:17). The raised body is a mystery, Paul insists. And to anyone who tries to figure it out, his inelegant response is, “You fool!” (1 Cor 15:36). It is also obvious that the disciples’ direct, palpable experience of the risen Lord became more indirect. Acts describes this latter period as having happened after 40 days, symbolic of a holy period. He was “lifted up” into heaven, much like incense, prayers and sacrifices rising to God.
Now that the Lord is at the right hand of the Father, is he no longer with us? No, he is still with us. We even see in the Gospel today that after the ascension “the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.” One tradition has Jesus needing to leave in order to send the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:7), while another seems to blur the two: “the Lord is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:17). The confusion comes precisely because we are dealing with a reality that eludes tidy concepts.
I take the truth of the Ascension to be that the Lord Jesus has gone cosmic. He is not isolated by time and space as he was when he walked the roads of Palestine: “Even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him no longer” (2 Cor 5:16). For Christ now reconciles all things to himself that he may be “all and in all” (Col 1:20; 3:11).
The feast of the Ascension is not about getting the historical facts down, as they themselves reside in utter mystery. What is important is engaging the reality of the Ascension. That Christ is no longer with us “according to the flesh” allows us to know him widely, from the indwelling in our souls to the life and sacraments of the church to the breadth of the universe.
Today we celebrate the lordship of Jesus Christ as one who has penetrated the whole universe and holds all things in his love. He is there when the Muslim bows to pray. He is there when the scientist pursues a cure. He delights with a child who laughs, and he guides a senior in her wisdom. He is “all and in all.”