Thursday, May 25, 2017

Ascension Day: Up on high? Are you sure?

There is a certain sympathy that I have with those who find the Ascension almost comedic in its vision. Did our Blessed Lord really ascend in the sense of going upwards? If so, it's very tempting to see Him take off like a rocket, or gently ascend as in a great glass elevator.

What are we told?

St Luke says, "And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven, as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come, in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven."

St Mark says,"So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God." When was this? "JESUS appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat." And this is not contradicted in the account by St Luke, either. Does this mean that Jesus crashed through the roof?

These are the only two accounts of Our Lord's ascension by the Evangelists. It is clear that the Disciples were assembled at dinner when Jesus comes to them, upbraids some for their unbelief, gives them His final instructions, answers their final questions, and then empowers them for the task of Apostleship. And then He ascends.

Except if we read carefully, it does not seem that Jesus does the ascending. He is received, taken up into Heaven and sits on the right hand of God. His Disciples stand looking up into Heaven when the angels speak to them. How are we to understand this?

We know that God is ever present with us and yet remains in Heaven. We also know that we cannot ascribe location to God in the way that we understand the term. If Jesus goes to be with His Father in Heaven, the same is true for Him. His post-resurrection body has the ability to appear and disappear, pass through locked doors and yet remain physical enough to eat. He is no ghost.

If we interpret up literally, then we have to see Christ's ascension as something which makes a point about our limitation as beings in space. We can point left and right, forward and back, up and down, and these directions are all at right angles to each other. We cannot point in any other direction that is at right angles to each of these three directions. We are limited to three dimensions. If Christ ascends in the sense of rising from the ground before disappearing into the clouds, then He does so to demonstrate the limitless nature of His human body in a way that His Disciples understand. Then, when "the cloud from sight receives Him when the forty days were o'er," He passes beyond the confines of the Universe into that Eternity where Space and Time are no longer of any absolute frame of reference.

We do not know what the Lord does when He ascends. All we know is that this apparently final act recorded by the Evangelists is a demonstration of the power of God who receives His Son back to Him again. This Ascension is the means by which Our Lord Jesus receives His ability to shake of the shackles of our smallness and to be present with us now, whenever now is. His Ascension makes possible the Mystery of the Sacrament of the Altar whereby His Faithful truly receive Him under the veil of bread and wine, so that His glory may not destroy us sinners. His reception into Heaven makes possible His reception by our bodies, so that we may be received into His body. If Christ does not ascend, if He is not received into Heaven, then He is just as limited to the observable universe and to the comprehension of our minds as we are.

In receiving the Holy Eucharist, we find ourselves in Heaven although our feeble eyes may not perceive it. We just need to believe it. There are those who will always dismiss the Ascension as an exercise of mythology but they miss how, whatever the means used, Christ invites us through His Ascension to gaze into Heaven itself, whether that is through the Sacrament, through an ikon, or through the eyes of the soul.

Christ's Ascension burst through the walls of our perception of what is real. If we hold on tightly, He will draw us with Him.

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