Saint Luke tells us that on the fortieth day following his resurrection from the dead, Jesus completed his appearances to his disciples and took their leave. All of a sudden one wants to ask many questions. Like children who notice that their parents are going out, one wants to know: Where are you going? When will you come back? And who’s going to stay with us?
Jesus really did go away in the Ascension, although there are Christians who deny it. They think that the Ascension is an antique doctrine that does not make sense today. And so they try to come up with something that does make sense. For instance: Jesus’ body somehow dissolved into the world, in a process like marination. Douglas Farrow, a Canadian scholar of the Ascension, found a Sunday school lesson in which the teacher is told to drop a fizzy tablet into a glass of water as an image. The Ascension is Jesus losing a particular location and bubbling into the world at large.
The anxiety over taking the Ascension as a real departure of Jesus is widespread. So in a sermon in which the preacher was trying to explain why the Ascension does not mean Jesus left the world, I heard this: Back when the New Testament was written people thought the earth was flat, and that God was in a higher part of the universe, way up above the earth, and so, they thought, Jesus went up from earth into that outer space. But we now know (the preacher went on) that up there, beyond the clouds, there are just stars and galaxies and planets and dust and, mostly, empty space. Like the atheistic cosmonaut said, There is no God; I went into space, and I didn’t see him.
This argument is so full of holes it makes Swiss cheese look like solid concrete. Intelligent people have ever known the earth is round; it’s a premise of Dante’s Divine Comedy, for instance (Dante wrote in the early 1300s); and before him the ancient Greeks knew; and so on. The Bible does not assume the earth is flat—it does, however, assume that everything in the world is a created thing and thus not the creator and not to be worshiped. In a way the whole point of the thought of the Bible is that the creator is radically other than the creation.
It is indeed the key point. Unlike most other ancients, the thinkers of Israel grasped the radical discontinuity between God and creation. For Israel, the divine was not and could not be something in the world. For Israel, God was no more “up there” than he was “down here.” The sun was not divine, nor was the moon, nor were the rivers or the seas or the thunder. Indeed, Israelites, like early Christians, were often taken to be atheists, because they denied that there were any gods in the world.
Thus when they said that Jesus “was taken up; and a cloud received him,” they did not mean that Jesus went somewhere up there in the world. Rather, they were telling us exciting and utterly surprising news about how we are related to God—about how we, who are creatures, are related to God, who is nowhere and no thing.
Here is an analogy that I think helpful. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote “The Lord of the Rings,” a vast creative work of a complex, rich world full of beings who are interesting, surprising, sometimes evil, sometimes venal, sometimes courageous, sometimes stellar. But within the story none of the characters ever show any awareness that they are created by Tolkien. Even Samwise Gamgee, who often ponders what songs might be written about the great deeds up into which he has been caught, Sam never imagines that those songs would be composed by agents themselves the creations of Tolkien.
Now part of the wonder of God (it’s one of the reasons we love him) is that from the beginning of creation God has desired to be a character inside the story that he created. God was not content to be the author only. That’s why throughout the Old Testament, in various ways at sundry times, he spoke to the prophets, he revealed himself and his will to his people, and so forth; and finally, with the Incarnation of Jesus, he actually did it. God became a real character in this story that we are in. He took on human flesh. He became a human being.
The Ascension is the end of this movement of God into the story that he is the author of. The Ascension finishes what began with the Annunciation and Christmas. It is just as much a wonder as the babe in the manger, the object of the worship of shepherds and angels and beasts. Not only did God enter into the story, God also left it. As there was an inception to Jesus’ human life, so was there a conclusion. The end was not his death! He rose from the dead, soul and body, fully human still (remember, the tomb was empty!). But at the conclusion of a period following his resurrection, Jesus returned to his Father. Not a movement in space, this is a “movement” from the realm of characters back to the realm of the author, a “movement” from the created world back to the creator.
The children want to know, Where are you going, and when are you coming back? He is going to his Father. But he is going there as who he is and who he will henceforth always be: God Incarnate, the Word-made-flesh. He going to his Father in his complete humanity, which is to say, in particular, with his created body, which just as it was not left behind in the tomb so it was not left behind at the Ascension. He is leaving the story but he does not cease being a character in the story. Therefore, forever both God and man, both author and character, he can and will come again.
So when is he coming back? He is coming back at the end, when all our created stories reach their consummation. When Jesus returns all our stories will be completed. Your life will not have come merely to an end—it will be fulfilled. The point of Jesus’ return, in part, is to reveal the meaning (I think in many cases it will be the secret meaning) of every human life. And when that happens, all those who love Jesus will find that they have a “place” in the life of God—that they too have been lifted from the world of characters into the world of the author. Which is to say that Jesus’ Ascension is a prelude to make possible a similar ascension “journey” for all his friends.
In the meantime, to the final question, who is staying with us? That’s the Holy Spirit. Jesus has sent him to us from the Father. The Spirit reminds us of all that Jesus said and did, and until that final day when Jesus returns, the Spirit is here to strengthen us with power to testify to Jesus.
Thanks be to our Triune God, the author of our being who, in Jesus, has taken into himself created human nature!
This blog post is adapted from my sermon on Ascension Day at Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.