As they were looking on, he was lifted up,
and a cloud took him out of their sight…
They were gazing into heaven as he went… [Acts 1:9-10]
It is forty days since we celebrated the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus. It is the same period of time that those first disciples were blessed with resurrection appearances of Jesus – Luke says, He “showed Himself alive after His passion by many proofs.”
At the end of those forty days, they were gathered together at Bethany just outside of Jerusalem. In the account of the Ascension in Luke’s Gospel, he records that “lifting up his hands, [Jesus] blessed them. While He blessed them, He parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And [the disciples] returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”
The Ascension of Jesus is one of the core teachings of our faith – it is included as a line in our Creeds that we say week by week – he ascended into heaven.
What is God trying to tell us by this? Why did God choose this way of receiving his Son from earth?
God is telling us something about Jesus and something about ourselves.
First, what does Jesus’ Ascension say about Jesus?
[for the ideas from this section see J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, Ascension]
We know that heaven is not up there in the stars, a kind of physical space like we experience space here. But we all have an intuitive sense that what is above is greater – it is in our language, the way we speak about things – we say Wisdom is beyond us, that something is above what I know now, we speak of hierarchies, and at the top is the one who leads – and we know this in a very physical way, when we go to the top of a mountain we can see more, we get a perspective on things. Kings in the ancient world were set on thrones on platforms above the crowd, with steps to climb up. For Jesus to ascend is to rise in status, in authority. He returns to the place that he occupied from the beginning, the glory he had before the Incarnation. From there he exercises his authority given him by the Father.
Paul says, Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name. [Philippians 2:9] Jesus says, The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. [John 3:35] Paul says, he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. [1 Cor 15:25]
When Jesus was on earth, he could only speak to those who were in front of him. But from heaven Jesus is available not just to his disciples or the few he could meet in his bodily presence in one part of the world, but he is available to all who call upon his Name. His Ascension means his greater availability to the whole Creation:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, … Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
And that Jesus has ascended into heaven shows us the place from which he ministers to us – interceding for us, and sending the Holy Spirit to us.
Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. [Rom 8:34]
Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,and he gave gifts to men.” [Eph 4:8]
So the Ascension means that Jesus has authority over all, that he is available to all, and that he ministers to us from heaven.
Second, what does Jesus’ Ascension say about ourselves?
There is a connection for us between this life and the next – Jesus shows us that our life here has a telos, a purpose and an end. Jesus says to us, In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. [John 14:2-3] That place he ascended to – heaven – is the place to which we are being brought. There is an assurance by Jesus’ ascension of the future glory that awaits us and this is the cause of great hope for us. Our lives have an end and that end is to be with God eternally.
But more than a hope of future glory, there is a connection between earth and heaven for each of us now. The one to whom we are joined mystically, through our baptism and faith, is in heaven – He is the head, we are his body – and because Jesus is in heaven, we live an ascended life now. What does this look like? If we think about it enough, if we ponder this connection, it is intangible, but I think we begin to feel the draw even now… we do not stay in the depths of whatever situation we are in, but can be brought back continually to the mountaintop vision, we are continually called to look upon things from the heights, to recall ourselves to the bigger picture – to see our lives and to see our present sufferings in the light of God’s purposes for our whole lives – we are on a pilgrimage to and already tasting something of that life of heaven to which we are being brought.
Jesus’ ascension is like Elijah’s ascension but greater. You remember the story? Elijah was preparing to die, and Elisha would not leave him. Elijah asked what he could do for Elisha – Elisha asked him, let me inherit a double share of your spirit. Elijah said if you see me when I ascend, I will throw to you my mantle. And indeed Elisha cast his mantle on Elisha and he inherited that gift of spiritual grace. Likewise, and even more so, will Christ send down his mantle upon us if we look up to him in his ascended glory, that is, if we are baptized and look to him in faith for more than we are by nature. Paul tells us to put on Christ – the garment of Charity, the love of God, His Spirit poured out on us in baptism. We look to Jesus as Elisha was told to look on Elijah as he ascended – and from that place we are promised a share of His Holy Spirit!
So to sum up: for Jesus, the Ascension to heaven means that Jesus has authority over all, that he is available to all, and that he ministers to us from heaven; for us, the Ascension means that we have the promise of life in heaven, the experience even now of a participation in heaven, and part of that is the experience of the gift of the Holy Spirit!
Finally, our earthly liturgy is organized in a particular way and has always been seen by the Church as paralleling the life of heaven – the worship of God by the whole host of heaven.
We will soon say, therefore with angels and archangels and the whole host of heaven, and sing the song of heaven – the Sanctus.
Here heaven and earth are imaged in our church – and we are trying to realize this intermingling of the ascended life of Christ in heaven and its benefits for us and our ascended lives as Christians on earth joined to our heavenly Lord.
Let us prepare ourselves now with repentance and faith, with thanksgiving and hope and joy to receive the Bread of Heaven and to drink of the Cup of salvation, that as Christ has ascended to be with the Father so might we too there ascend in heart and mind!