In the first chapter of The Acts of the Apostles Luke describes the Ascension of Jesus. And he reports Jesus’ parting words to the apostles just before his ascension: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
This sets the scope of the commission for those who claim to be followers of the Risen Lord. The commission is for all of us: “You are my witnesses.” Not only the apostles, but all of us are to be witnesses to Jesus, giving evidence of what we have heard, what we have seen, and what we have experienced.
Of course, for many 21st century Christians, there is something vaguely embarrassing about the pictorial nature of the ascension. Because we know that heaven is not “up there,” and that in interstellar space it doesn’t make any sense to talk about “up and down.”
The story of the ascension comes from another age and another culture in which people’s understanding of the universe was very different from our present cosmology. For that age the unknown was domesticated by reference to a mythical three-story world view in which one could feel pretty much at the center of things.
In our day and age we have come to understand that the earth is a mere speck in the immensity of space, and that our history is but a fleeting moment in the eons of time. The once familiar contours have disappeared. The three layered universe has been displaced by the advances of science. No matter how far we might “ascend,” we know that we will not find the glories of heaven, but simply the awesome silence of space. So how can the ascension still have any meaning for us?
It can, but only if we remember that the ascension is not so much the account of some spectacular historical event, but rather is a claim about how Christ is present for us now. Using the mythological imagery of that time and culture, the writer of Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles expressed that the influence, intimacy and universal significance of Jesus had not simply vanished forty days after his resurrection. Rather, the ascension is the assertion that the living presence of Christ is now available to them—and to us—at all times and in all places.
If nothing else, the ascension means that Christ is no longer present as he was before. The life-span of this particular human being, Jesus of Nazareth, is now over and has vanished into the past. His physical presence is no longer available. Even the resurrection appearances come to an end with the ascension. It is the final appearance of the risen Lord. From that moment on, Jesus was not with the disciples as he was before: he was “taken up into heaven.”
But just like the disciples, we too are inclined to focus our attention on the past. It is easy for us to identify with the humanity of Jesus as it is presented to us in the Gospels. But the fact of the matter is that Christ is no longer present as he was in his earthly life or in his appearances to believers after his resurrection.
While the early Christians were not ignorant of the stories about Jesus or the parables and sayings attributed to him, when they expressed their communal faith, they spoke very little of his earthly life. Even though we continue to read and cherish the gospel stories, Jesus is not to be found simply by looking backwards.
The point of the story is found in the challenge of the angelic visitors: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” The temptation, both for the apostles and for us, is to forget that our calling is to live faithfully in the present as God’s partners in bringing healing and reconciliation to the world.
But if Jesus is not in the past, can we really find him in the present? The imagery of the Bible, the metaphorical and mythological language used to speak about God, can easily become like a fairytale, a naiveté only appropriate for childhood. But today many people measure reality empirically, solely through the input of the senses. We know how to measure, dissect, explain and interpret, but too rarely do we stop to behold, to enjoy, or even to experience. Life has become one-dimensional and for the sense of mystery we have substituted entertainment.
In such a situation there is the danger that the ascension will simply become a story that confirms in us the underlying suspicion that God is not here, that Jesus has quite literally “gone away” and that we are truly “on our own.” Today many people are searching for something more—and yet, many do not know where to look. Undoubtedly, some will retreat to a pre-scientific piety and pretend that the supernatural God that ancient people worshiped is still just as real for us.
But if we reject that, are we then condemned to living in the modern spiritual vacuum without any way of experiencing the presence of God? Could it be that if we are asked the question, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” we may have no answer—or worse, merely rub our eyes as if we have been day-dreaming all along.
If the ascension means that Christ is no longer present as he was in the past, then our task is discover how he is present now. Our faith does not promise us a divine rescue. Rather, as a result of the ascension, we are given the courage and the strength to face life’s challenges and to seek God’s presence in the depth of our own experiences.
The ascension is the testimony of the early disciples that, even after his death, Christ is present with us, although in a new way. In this event, the power and meaning that the disciples had seen in Jesus of Nazareth, was set free from the limitations of his particular historical existence so that the love of Christ could reach through all time and space. Jesus’ ascension is then our commissioning to fully share in his ministry.
The early Christians had a vivid sense of Christ’s presence. They remembered that Jesus had once been a baby in his mother’s arms, but he was not that now. He had once been companion, friend, fellow-worker, teacher and rabbi, but he was not that now. He had once hung on the cross as a common criminal, but he was not suffering there now. Now he was the ascended Lord. Now he was with them in a new, radically intimate way through the Holy Spirit.
Our business is not to indulge in nostalgia for an historical figure who inevitably recedes more and more into the past. Neither are we to give in to the shallow values and lack of belief in this secular society. Rather, our business, just like that of the first disciples, is to respond to the new vision that Christ has opened for us: the vision of a new humanity, even the vision of new heaven and a new earth. This is a vision that can be realized only if his disciples, now as then, are willing to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. So, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”