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In Which Padre Mickey Rambles On And On About The Ascension
Ascension Day is an interesting event to celebrate, and I will admit that this is a feast which carries some complications for a scientific minded, late twentieth-early twenty-first century North American like myself. We have a different understanding of the universe than did the original audience of the story of the Ascension. Many people in that part of the world believed in what we call a three tiered universe: there was the underworld, then our world, then the heavens. They believed that the ground separated the underworld and this world, and that something similar to a large curtain separated this world from the heavens. This curtain had little holes in it, and God’s glory shone through those holes, and that is what we call the stars. In a three tiered universe, certain beings were capable of moving between the three worlds. Greek mythology was full of stories of heroes who visited the underworld, and in our Nicene Creed we say that Jesus "descended into hell." The Church also teaches that he "ascended into heaven." The story of the Ascension appears in the three synoptic gospels, and in the second part of Luke’s work, the Acts of the Apostles. In John’s gospel the Ascension happens of the day of Resurrection and apparently there were no witnesses to the event. Now, when you read Luke’s two versions of this event, and the versions in the other gospels, for that matter, one is led to believe that Jesus floated up in the sky until he got to heaven. In a three tiered universe such a thing is possible, as one simply passes through that curtain which separates the two worlds and one will be at the Throne of the Father in no time. We, however, live in a different time; most of us remember the trips to the moon made by the astronauts of the 1970’s. We live in a time in which the sky is filled with satellites which make it possible for us to communicate with the other side of the planet in seconds. We live in a time when we have seen photographs of the planet taken from outer space. We live in the time of the Hubbell Telescope which has enabled us to see far across "the vast expanse of interstellar space." This knowledge of the universe, and this perspective of the universe, makes it difficult for many of us to think of Jesus as floating up to heaven; I imagine him rising up and up and up and up past the moon, past the asteroid belt, past Jupiter and the large planets, past our solar system, past the galaxies; I guess he would just keep rising and rising forever!!! But fortunately, that is not what Ascension Day is about. If the Ascension is not about Jesus floating up to heaven, what is it about? It has to do with several theological points, it has to do with the theology of the Holy Trinity. The Ascension is the moment when Jesus, the Son, the Redeemer, the Second Person of the Trinity, came into the presence of the Father, the Creator, the First Person of the Trinity. This is the moment when the Son came into the presence of the Father because he had accomplished the task given to him by the Creator. The theology of the Ascension has been an important part of Jesus’ story from the very beginning of the Church. It has always been an important part of the Christology of the Church. The theology of the Ascension has been an important aspect of Christology from the earliest days of the Church for several reasons. The first reason is that the Ascension represents the culmination of the earthly mission of Jesus. His death and resurrection could not have their full effect until Jesus ascended to the presence of the Father, to whom he presented his finished work of atonement. We teach that Jesus had two natures, that he was fully human and fully divine, and it was at this moment that the humanity of Jesus was taken up to God and glorified. This aspect of the Ascension, this aspect of the Resurrection, was very important to the early Christians, and St. Paul speaks of it several times in his letters to the Christians around the Mediterranean. The Ascension is also important because it tells us that the earthly body of Jesus is no longer present within time and space. The earthly body of Jesus now belongs to the Son of God in eternity, that is why the stories have him floating up into the heavens, so that there was no question of Jesus’ body being left behind, otherwise people might say that he wasn’t resurrected, he was revived somehow and then died later. Some people actually do make such a claim; there is a tomb in Japan and a tomb in Pakistan which are supposed to hold the body of Jesus.
The Resurrected and Ascended Jesus is not present to us in the way he was present to the disciples. We now seek the presence of Jesus within our gathering, because he told us that when two or three are gathered in his name, he is in our midst. We now seek his presence in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, where he is present in the sharing of the bread and wine. We now seek his presence in the faces of the poor, in the faces of those we meet and in the faces of those we love. The Ascension is a theological event, not what we would consider an historical event.
Another important aspect of the Ascension is that the Son had to come into the presence of the Father so that the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, could be sent to us. Jesus promised that after he ascended to the Father, he would send the Comforter, the Advocate, but the Holy Spirit could not come to do its work among us until the Son had ascended to the Father. And because the Holy Spirit has come among us, we are now able to do what Jesus has commanded us to do. The Holy Spirit helps us to love one another as Christ loves us, to love the Lord with all our heart and soul and mind, and to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the prisoner and welcome the stranger. So instead of celebrating Jesus floating up to heaven, let us prepare for the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit.