You may not be familiar with the story of the ascension. Like so many biblical stories, it’s a strange one.
Let’s back up to where this story starts. Jesus, the child refugee who is also, somehow, God themself, grows up to be a rabbi: a teacher of faith, a teller of truth, a healer. He gathers people around him and proclaims the wonderful disruptive presence of God, here and now: as common and as transformative as yeast or seed or flame. Jesus’ teachings about pervasive and subversive divine love begin to challenge the powers that be: religious powers, social powers, political powers. So Jesus is killed. He goes down to break the gates of hell, and rises on the third day. Jesus spends 40 days after his resurrection on earth with his disciples, teaching them, eating with them, blessing them. And then, he is carried up into heaven.
The Ascension in art and music and liturgy is often a celebration of Jesus’ supremacy. In the letter to the Ephesians, the writer proclaims that God seated Jesus “at their right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And God has put all things under Jesus’ feet and has made him the head over all things.”
Now it is wonderful to think of Jesus having so much power, Love having so much power in our world. Unfortunately, the way we imagine that power is often with language and imagery of European kingship: whiteness and maleness and hierarchical dominance. I don’t know about you, but images like this do not really evoke for me a radical and just reordering of the world.
What does it mean to say that Jesus ascends to heaven, anyway? Does his body literally rise? Do the disciples watch his feet hover above them, as some artists imagine? And whether or not Jesus’ body literally rises, what does this story teach us about the nature of God, and how God can influence our lives today?
The ascension reminds us that Jesus goes before us, blazing a trail towards God. Jesus shows us a way between earth and heaven, a way that we and our loved ones also travel when we die. Jesus’ ascension may be a kind of coronation, but it is also a coming home, a return to his source. We too, will find our final homes in the source and ground of our being, in the God who Jesus spoke about.
Jesus’ ascension is also the turning point between the earthly, temporal presence of Jesus and the eternal presence of Christ. When he returns to God, Jesus is no longer concentrated in one physical body, but suffuses all of creation in a new way, as it says in Ephesians, filling all in all. While he may be enthroned above, we can also imagine Jesus arriving at the center of all things, at the heart of all things, and becoming more readily available to our hearts, here and now.
Let us this lovely good embrace: Jesus, no longer bound by time or space; Jesus, wisdom and sweetness; Jesus, who dwells now with God, and who is therefore as close as breath, or heartbeat, or hope.