I want to begin by acknowledging that this week is the sixtieth anniversary of the consecration of the “new” Coventry Cathedral. The “old” cathedral was destroyed by Nazi bombs in the Second World War. Nails reclaimed from the ashes have been formed into crosses – one of which hangs on the wall of this very church. It is a profound story of death and resurrection and of the power of the Holy Spirit to help us rise from the ashes. And so, it is extraordinarily relevant to this Ascencion Day – which completes the story of Jesus’ Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit to us. Hold that in mind as we consider this feast…
The number forty turns up in scripture fairly frequently. Forty days in the wilderness for Jesus after baptism… forty years in the wilderness for the people of Israel after they escape Egypt… forty days and nights of rain for Noah… And hiding behind the scenes in today’s feast is the number forty… Jesus rises on Easter and Ascends on this day, forty days later. What is it with the number forty?
It’s obvious that forty is symbolic, though exactly what it symbolizes is not so obvious. For some of the things numbered forty, it’s clear that it can mean just a big number. Forty years wandering in the wilderness is probably just another way of saying a long time… Forty was also thought of as a number for reflection and change of heart – hence forty days in the desert. It was an appropriate number for punishment – if you were administering lashes, forty was the maximum number permitted. Often someone would be condemned to forty lashes minus one – was that meant to be lenient, or to remind the bad person it could get worse…
Forty figured into pregnancy in two ways. It was thought to take forty days for the “seed” to take root in the womb (this was a pre-medical view of pregnancy) and forty weeks for the child to form and be ready for birth.
So, for the faithful of Jesus’ time, forty had wonderful and terrible implications. Forty days of Lent lead us to Easter and forty days after Easter leads us to Jesus’ ascension – terrible and wonderful days.
Almost everything we know about Ascension comes to us from Luke, the anonymous author of a Gospel and The Acts of the Apostles. We heard most of what he had to say about the Ascension in this morning’s readings.
Matthew hints at the Ascension, but just in passing on the way to the “Great Commission”. Matthew wants us to get on with the business of sharing the good news. Luke is a little more patient, we are allowed to stand in awe and wonder for a short time, and even worship – though we are certainly called to share the Gospel as well.
Luke even foreshadows the Ascension. In the twentieth chapter of the Gospel Jesus says to Mary Magdalene: “Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my God and your God.’”
So, what is the agenda here? Why is Luke so concerned about the Ascension that he has to tell us it is coming and then tell the story in both the Gospel and the book of Acts?
It’s an amazing, if a bit troubling and confusing, story. As written, it is the story of Jesus literally being lifted up from the earth, through the clouds, to the right hand of God in heaven. This assumes an understanding of the universe in three tiers – the underworld, the world, and the heavens. The blue of our sky was understood to be the blue jewels that made up the floor of heaven – lapis lazuli.
Within about a hundred years of the Ascension, some theologians were already concerned that the “three-tiered universe” was out of date. Origen, for example, seems to have found it an embarrassment as, by his time, the universe was no longer understood to be a three-tiered affair.
But here we are, on Ascension Day, a day that seems built on the notion of Jesus being lifted up from tier two to tier three as a crowd watches. Do we suspend our scientific knowledge to accept the literal nature of this event? Do we swallow hard and cross our fingers as Origin might do?
Our Brother Andrew, of blessed memory, had a saying he was fond of. He was Scottish and loved all things Celtic. He would begin stories with a disclaimer: “It may not have happened this way, but this is the truth.” Certainly, there are many times when we encounter truth that is not literal.
In fact, all mythology is based on truth that is not literal and our modern society is greatly reduced because we want to understand anything that is not literal truth as a falsehood. This leaves us with a choice – either the earth and everything in it was created in six working days, or it’s all a lie. I don’t accept either of these positions.
Of course, Jesus is not the first person to Ascend, to be Assumed bodily. Enoch and Elijah were both Assumed. Some of the leaders of the Roman State were assumed to be Assumed. The Greeks believed that Apollonius was Assumed. And not too long ago the Roman Church determined that Mary, Mother of Jesus, was Assumed. In the Zoroastrian tradition, the Hindu tradition, and Islamic tradition there is a belief that certain important leaders were Assumed.
So, with the words of Br Andrew fresh in mind; “it may not have happened this way, but this is the truth” I ask myself, what might the truth of Jesus’ Ascension be?
Well – for one thing it creates a very special category. Our tradition is full of very holy people – Columba, Aidan, Benedict, Scholastica, Desmond… to name a few. But nobody would suggest that these people are in any way on the same level as Jesus.
The Assumption of Jesus also suggests an intimacy with God in Heaven that is unique. I have an expectation of Heaven after I die – but I’m not sure what I expect… of who or what I will be in that context, let alone what that context will be. Jesus cautions us in our thinking about heaven.
When the Disciples are pestering him to tell them about heaven his answer is – don’t worry about heaven… it’s a really big place. Worry about here and now. When the Sadducees are trying to trick Jesus with a question about how marriage works in heaven, Jesus replies that marriage is just not a thing in heaven. Luke and Acts are telling us is that Jesus has unique, direct knowledge of heaven. Jesus doesn’t tell us much about heaven, though he could have. Perhaps we are meant to stay with the notion that we don’t need to worry about heaven. We need to live in this world.
Just before he goes, Jesus tells the disciples to be clothed with power from on high; and after that, to share the good news of salvation with all the world. This power from on high sounds a bit mysterious, perhaps even threatening. But it is a reference to the Holy Spirit – the third person of the trinity. Jesus has been hinting about this Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter, for some time. And Jesus has made clear that when he goes, then the Holy Spirit will come. This is the moment when that transition takes place.
If this story were written in modern times, I suspect the details would be different. I imagine the “three-tiered universe” would not be central and some other device would be used to remove Jesus – perhaps a bolt of lightning or, maybe a “transporter beam” borrowed from Star Trek… though perhaps the same image of Jesus being lifted away would work just as well. We have a different understanding of the Universe, but our understanding of heaven is still that it is a vast place up there somewhere…
I don’t have a need for this story to be literally true. I do have a need to ignore, or at least discount, that part of my mind that wants to argue with the literal details. When we force things to adhere to our understanding, we greatly limit their meaning.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Ascension is the warning Jesus gives to Mary – do not cling to me… In some sense, Jesus is telling her not hold on too tightly to the Jesus she has known. Doing so will inhibit her ability to welcome the Holy Spirit. And, frankly, the Jesus she will come to know is much more vast than the human Jesus she has known.
The person of Jesus in flesh and blood is comforting and loveable. The amorphous holy spirit is much harder to get our arms around – literally and figuratively…
But we must let go of our images of Jesus so that we can open ourselves to the Holy Spirit who will dwell in us. It is faith that leads us toward this unknown region. And this unknown region is nothing less than the Kingdom of God.