It’s hard to know what to do with the Ascension of Jesus. In front of his disciples, Jesus is raised into the air and carried away by a cloud. This happens forty days after Easter, and is the culmination of Jesus’ earthly incarnation. Just as he was, by the Holy Spirit, conceived within Mary and born a human, he is borne aloft by the Spirit and carried back up to God.
The “up” part is maybe the trouble. We no longer believe that the sky is a dome, an arrangement of concentric spheres on which hang the sun, moon and stars, and behind them of course, is heaven. We have looked beyond the dome with our telescopes, and have pierced it with our rockets, and, well, we didn’t find heaven up there. When 21st century minds think about things like this, we tend toward alternate dimensions, and strange realities described by string theory, not simply an elevator up into the sky.
And strange, too, that Jesus’ body went with him. We are dust, and to dust we shall return, but Jesus’ body, made of the same stuff as ours, the same dust, does not return to the soil. No bones will be found. There is no geological memory of Jesus. No remains. Only the story, told by those who gathered in that house in Jerusalem that day, and those who heard them, and those who heard them, and so on. Which is pretty good, but still, strange.
So I guess I’m saying that as a physical event, as a literal mechanical operation of God, you are forgiven if the Ascension does not speak to you. But reading it as a story that describes a spiritual movement might open it up a little bit.
So let’s look at how this ascension functions as a mirror image of Jesus’ arrival on earth. If this is the ascension, we might call his birth a con-descension, a descending with. It is, all this time later, still incredible to us that God would subject Godself to… well, to us. So God doesn’t merely send Jesus to teach us how to connect with God. The gesture is not merely a sending-forth, but in the ascension, Jesus is drawn back in. This life, given freely, as a gift, also loops back around to the sender.
But it is not a retraction. God is not taking Godself away from us. Think about the teachings these last few weeks, about Jesus going to his Father’s house, which has many rooms. Or about how Jesus will send an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to be God’s presence with us during his absence. God is teaching us something about God here.
If the sending, the con-descension of Jesus is a display of God’s love, of God’s forgiveness and desire for relationship with the world, then what does the Ascension show us? I would argue that it shows us God’s hospitality. For Jesus does not simply disappear, but gives us a path, a way to follow him.
So the Ascension becomes a symbol of our welcome into the household of God. It is the final action of the incarnate Jesus, which is a notable status to occupy. And in his final act, he shows us the way to God. Now, of course, given the physics of the situation, it is not a literal path. It is a spiritual one. By practicing the life that Jesus teaches, we can participate in his ministry, and can follow him into fellowship with God. By practicing steadily and faithfully, we are inwardly transformed. We do not become Jesus per se. That’s a dangerous thing to suggest. But we become more like Jesus, and live lives more characterized by God’s presence.
The ascension takes on a new meaning if this is God’s way of showing us the way to God. Pretty much ever since it happened, people have been scandalized by the fact that Jesus was a human. When he was crucified, that would have meant God was suffering. It meant God was part of the cycles of violence and death that are so prevalent on the earth. If God has a body, and bodies eventually fail and decay, does that mean God fails and decays?
Here, then, is an answer. God does not decay, but returns. God is always, as with the ascension, returning to God, and also, in the Holy Spirit, returning to the world. This is the processual nature of God. God proceeds into and through the world and back to Godself, at every moment. The connection is always active. This constant procession, God’s receptivity and calling, means that God responds to the world, to each speck of it, at each moment. Every part of the universe gets the possibility for the next moment from this divine procession. The future opens up as the Spirit pulls the tangled threads of the world into a new form of order. Endings lead into another moment. Inasmuch as God returns even to the places where life falters, God’s procession into and through the world is at every moment a renewal.
The cross looked like God’s ultimate failure, but the God who moves in and through all of creation summoned a next moment. The miracles of order on the edge of chaos, of planets condensing from clouds of gas and ever-more-complex life springing from primordial soup, these witness to the sacred movement, creativity, and calling of God’s procession. All of it is thoroughly sacred, constantly folded into relationship, exposing new potentialities and awakening new life.
For all of this, the story of the Ascension does not stand as a testament to the structure of the cosmos. God, we find with growing confidence, is not found by going “up.” But the truth this story tells is not astrophysical. Just as the world was not created in one week a few thousand years ago, but that’s not the truth Genesis has to tell us. These stories are about how God relates to us. The Ascension shows us a God who not only sends Jesus to a world that frankly didn’t deserve him, as a gesture of grace and love. It shows us that same God, 33 years or so later, inviting us—all of us—home. It is done by the constant movement of God into the world, through the world, and back into Godself. This is how we are constantly folded into the divine household. By Jesus, and by the Holy Spirit, we are shown the way and welcomed home.