Today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, into heaven. As this feast is on a Thursday, it is at times transferred to the 7th Sunday of Easter or passed over altogether. This feast may also seem superfluous, or merely a marking of one last event in the Gospel of Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles. Many of us pass this feast by and don’t give it much thought, I know I did this for much of my Christian life even after seminary.
Part of a reason to pass it over is that given our current cosmology it seems a little embarrassing. Space is up not heaven. The spatial ascension, which would have confirmed some ancient (not all mind you) cosmologies, and would be all this was about if all we have on this day is a description of Christ going from earth to heaven. The crude (and false) interpretation of this feast is that we celebrate how Jesus got back to heaven. This isn’t what this is all about as a careful reading of say the Gospel of John shows. Jesus Christ wasn’t walking around for 40 days waiting to return to heaven, he was already there.
Then what is this all about? If Jesus Christ didn’t need the conveyance of clouds and slowly lifting up into the air to get to heaven then what is this spectacle all about? Well first we should recognize that yes this is spectacle! None of the descriptions of Jesus’ ascension are necessary, rather they are all symbolic, visual cues and clues to the meaning of the incarnation, Christ’s death and Resurrection. Without this symbol of ascension and its spectacle, that transfixed the Apostles and disciples gaze, we miss a very important point, if Jesus just one day disappeared in a poof, like his appearances to the disciples or his disappearance with the two disciples in Emmaus, then we loose an important assertion about Jesus’ and thus God’s physicality after the incarnation.
The physicality of the spectacle is important. Jesus of Nazareth is a real and physical human being. Granted something extraordinary is happening with this physical body of the Christ, but after the Resurrection Jesus’ body does strange things and has strange properties (walks through doors and walls, has wounds that can still be touched but aren’t’ a problem for the body) but it is still physical Jesus eats food, touches people, breaks bread. The spectacle of the ascension tells us that Jesus Christ as a body is in heaven with God. To go up, is symbolic, one ascends to a throne, heaven is the throne of God. Up represents transcendence, divinity as beyond the physical plane. Yet in this beyond there is now and forever a physical body.
In short: the Ascension of Christ through spectacle and symbol tell us that the incarnation is a permanent reality. God in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is permanently human, with the wounds of the Cross, and forever united with creation and the physical universe. God and matter are forever united. This is the ultimate meaning of the Gospel, and our salvation, it is the means by which all is made whole and the world is transformed. Now, forever, God is part of creation and the universe, in and through the body Jesus of Nazareth. We can be united with God because God has united God’s self to us in our humanity and in our physicality.