Ascension & Advent, Space & Time

ascensionYesterday was Ascension Sunday, when Christians remember Jesus’s ascension. Hymns on Ascension Sunday tend to focus on Jesus’s reign in heaven, how his crown of thorns has become a crown of stars of light – that kind of thing. But, there’s an undeniable tension with the ascension. In Luke’s ascension account in Acts 1 (of the gospel writers, only Luke shows any interest in the ascension), the disciples are looking into the sky, and two mysterious Men in White appear:

“Galileans,” they said, “why are you standing here gazing into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into the sky, will come back in the same way you’ve seen him go into the sky.”

So, basically, don’t stand around looking up. Why? Because this same Jesus will return. This isn’t about the sky, or heaven. This is about down here. And there’s the tension. The ascension leads to a temporary, intermediate state; Jesus will return. There ought to be a strong, powerful link between Ascension Sunday (and Ascension Day, always on the preceding Thursday) and the season of Advent. It’s a link that’s there in the Apostles’ Creed:

He ascended to heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

The goal of Jesus’s work is not his ascension, or even his ‘heavenly session’, but his reign over the fullness of God’s Kingdom on earth. As Paul writes about the Return of Jesus to earth, in 1 Corinthians 15:24-27, he puts it this way, citing a psalm or two:

Then, the goal: when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he has put everything under his feet.

And when it comes to citing psalms on Ascension Sunday, we often read Psalms 24 and 47. These psalms, we understand, were originally associated with the triumphal and joyful entry of the Ark of the Covenant into the Temple. Christians have a very long tradition of associating them with the ascension, as an expression of the triumph of Jesus. However, as we heard in the parish church this morning, these psalms rightly ought to point to something else too: to the truest and fullest entry of God’s presence into his temple, at the return of Jesus the Messiah to this earth. Understood in this way, singing and reading these psalms will help to supply that powerful link between Ascension and Advent.

Another question raised by the Ascension, and also addressed in the parish church this morning, is: “Where is Jesus?” That’s also part of the tension of Ascension Sunday. In the account of the event, Jesus goes up into the sky. Of course, that would have made perfect sense to the original readers, and the writer, of the account, as well as to the observers of whatever it was that actually happened. But how on earth can we reconcile that with modern cosmology?

Asking “Where is heaven?” seems a fairly pointless question. Any answer surely has to posit that it’s not a part of our reality, the reality of the visible creation. It must be in some sense another dimension. On the other hand, asking “Where is Jesus?” isn’t actually a pointless or stupid question. It’s more cogent, and difficult to answer, than we might imagine – at least for those with an orthodox view of Jesus Christ, and of humanity.

Human bodies (whether pre- or post-resurrection) belong on earth, in this dimension, not in heaven (wherever heaven is). Ordinarily, the lives of human beings as whole human beings, in mortality or immortality, are lived entirely on earth. We affirm the real humanity of Jesus as well as his divinity. How can a human body that is very much a part of this visible creation, and belongs in it, exist in some other dimension? There’s mystery here, for sure. But it’s clear, to me at least, that whatever the disciples saw that day was an accommodation to their understanding of the cosmos. With the understanding we have now of the cosmos, of space and time, there might be other avenues to follow as we ask “Where is Jesus?” Perhaps.

The mysterious Men in White fundamentally link the Ascension and Return of Jesus. In their message, the intervening period is de-emphasised (as in the Apostles’ Creed). The Ascension and Return are two adjacent acts in the drama of Jesus as King on Earth. Perhaps, and I mean perhaps, the question of “Where is Jesus ?” is better-framed as “When is Jesus?” In the future, in space and time, Jesus is here on earth, reigning in the creation with all his holy ones, who have been redeemed by his life, death and resurrection. In our present time, Jesus is not physically present at all. But he has not left us bereft. He himself has come to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit, also designated as the Spirit of Christ (more mystery). This is what we’ll be remembering on Pentecost Sunday, in a week’s time. Where is Jesus? Not with us. Yet with us, always, even until the very end of the age.