Did you know that today marked the Christian Feast of Ascension? Probably not, if you’re of the Protestant persuasion. While our Catholic sisters and brothers never let the chance for a holy festival go begging, we tend to shirk such remembrances. In fact, we don’t attach much importance to the event of Jesus’ ascension at all, other than to see it as the day when Jesus ‘returned to heaven’.
Paintings like this one take the ascension seriously enough, though they seem to show Jesus levitating, or riding some sort of invisible escalator into the clouds, calling back to the watching apostles, “I’m just going to browse around Lululemon. I’ll meet you back at the food court in, I don’t know, a few millennia or so.”
Impeccable works of classical art they may be, but they often reinforce a mistaken, yet persistent notion that Jesus wasn’t really one of us, but rather a divine visitor from the sky. Like a heavenly E.T., his time with us ended and he phoned home, flying back to where he truly belonged – but not before reminding his followers to ‘be good’, touching his glowing finger to their hearts and telling them he’d be ‘right here’.
No, the writers of the New Testament take great pains to assure us of Jesus’ raw and uncompromising humanity. Jesus was ‘at home’ on earth as much as any of the 7 billion humans currently occupying the planet.
So what are we to make of the seemingly strange ascension passage from Acts?:
…[A]s they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Acts 1:9-11, NRSV
I think a couple of things might be going on here. First, Luke (presumably the writer of Acts) is striving to find language to describe what could only be described as indescribable. This event, however it looked, had no precedent either in the minds of the disciples who witnessed it, or in the mind of the writer who reported it based on their accounts. What do you say when you have no frame of reference for what you want to say?
You access a cultural touchstone to both visualise the event and explain its meaning. That’s the second thing I think is happening in this passage. In this case, that crucial touchstone is the Hebrew scriptures, specifically the Book of Daniel, a book much loved by 1st-century Jews. Here’s one of their favourite passages:
As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne…
…I saw one like a son of man
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
Daniel 7:9, 13-14, NRSV
I should probably stress that the writer isn’t high on grandma’s ‘super special mushrooms’. Apocalypses like Daniel became extraordinarily popular in the centuries leading up to Jesus’ time. They portray major earthly events through spectacular images and visions. In this section of Daniel, four mythical beasts, representing four great empires of the world, wreak havoc on God’s people, Israel. The beasts are defeated and ‘one like a son of man’, Israel’s representative, comes before the throne of God. He receives the power that once belonged to these beasts and becomes the head of a kingdom without end.
I think it’s this imagery that Acts is harnessing. Jesus is ‘lifted up’ on the clouds. He enters the heavenly space and the divine throne room, where offstage, God bestows on him the mantle of lordship over the world and the kingdom he has won through the cross.
Looking at it this way helps us to recognise what this writer and the early Jesus movement were trying to say about his ascension. No, it wasn’t about Jesus sticking out his thumb and hitching a ride back to his home in the sky. It was about Jesus ascending his rightful throne, ruling and reigning over heaven and earth. And that reality changed the way they lived in this world!
Who knows? If we took the ascension more seriously, it might change the way we lived in this world as well.
The Kingdom of God is the key focus of scripture and the message of Jesus. That’s why I’ll be writing exclusively about the Kingdom for the next year. You can view all of the the pieces in the series on this page.
- Feature Image: E.T. (from the film review at Stack.com – https://stack.com.au/film-tv/movie-review/e-t-extra-terrestrial-4k-ultra-hd-review/)
- The Ascension by John Singleton Copley (from johnsingletoncopley.org)