The Ascension Longing
by Rev. Jack King
Last Thursday, Christians the world over celebrated the ascension of the risen Christ into heaven. Ascension Day always happens on a Thursday because Christ ascended through the heavens forty days after his resurrection. But because we don’t customarily see one another on Thursdays, it’s been our custom to celebrate and meditate on the ascension of Jesus the Sunday following Ascension Day.
It’s an interesting year to meditate on the Ascension of Jesus. Our culture seems to be looking to the heavens quite a bit this year. Much of that has to do with Scott Kelly’s 340-day voyage to the International Space Station, which he completed upon returning to earth in early March. Kelly embarked on this year- in-space experiment with another Russian cosmonaut, an experiment devoted to studying how year-long space flights affect the human body and psyche. With such a vast endeavor, you can imagine the protocols would be very strict.
Upon his return, Kelly answered questions about his year-in-space. One person asked about what scared him most about his year in space. He said that it wasn’t his own safety, but the safety of his family back home. NASA established strict protocols to determine an aborted mission and a premature return to earth. Kelly could only depart the space station early if there was a problem with the space station—a fire or a medical emergency for one of the crew there. Nothing on earth could authorize an early departure, including the death of a family member. Kelly said, ‘No matter what happens to your kids or your loved ones, you are not coming home.’
So here’s a statement from someone who is never cut out to be an astronaut: that is unthinkable to me. But set aside for a moment the inability to make relational sacrifices for the sake of science. Consider this: for all the advances in science and our fascination to explore and ascend to the heavens and the cosmos, we cannot explore space without the possibility of ultimate separations.
That’s a truth about space missions, but it’s also a recurring theme in space movies like Gravity. Departures are hazardous, re-entries are life-threatening. With staggering advances in science and technology, we can explore the heavens like never before, but never without the risk of severing one’s self from life on earth.
Compare our attempts to ascend into the heavens with Jesus’ ascension through the heavens and you really have very little comparison at all. Here’s the essential aspects of Jesus’ ascension. For starters, Jesus does not ascend into the heavens, as if he could be found in some far off planet or galaxy. Jesus ascended through the heavens beyond all galaxies and the entire cosmos. With healed scars in his hands and feet, the resurrected Jesus dwells in another realm transcending all space and time, where he is seated at the right hand of the Father.
In his risen body, he accomplished something that no other human being could do—he united earth and heaven in his ascension. The sons and daughters of Adam and Eve could not do this. Only the God-man can make heaven and earth one. Only Jesus could bring our humanity into the presence of God. Now, at the right hand of God is a human being who can sympathize with our weakness. At the right hand of God is a human being praying to the Father for us. At the right hand of God is our Great High Priest, a Palestinian man who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.
And here is the great mystery: Jesus’ ascension does not risk ultimate separation with those he loves on earth. On the contrary, his ascension assures a deeper union in God. How can this be once he departs the earth in his physical body?
Before Jesus ascended to heaven he promised he would send the Spirit of God to be with us until the end of the age. As Jesus ascends through the heavens, the Holy Spirit descends and indwells the hearts of all who will receive the Lord. That’s why we celebrate Pentecost next Sunday. Ascension doesn’t make sense without Pentecost. Without Pentecost and the real presence of God on earth, ascension would be a moment for eternal anguish. But with the gift of the Holy Spirit, we see how the spirit of Jesus will be present with us until the end of the age. It is the Spirit who will lead and guide us into all truth. It is the Holy Spirit who will make us more fully human.
So that’s an overview of our belief about Jesus’ ascension. But there’s more. We cannot wrap our minds around this story. It’s a staggering thought that a Palestinian man resurrected in the body now sits beside God the Father interceding for us in an eternal realm beyond our cosmos. I cannot envision it. This is a mystery beyond comprehension.
If you’ve attended Apostles for any length of time, you’ll know that ‘mystery’ is an important term for us. It’s an especially important reality around holy days like the Ascension of Jesus. But what do we mean when we speak of mystery? It’s become more fashionable to use the word ‘mystery.’ While I continue to speak of mystery, I also realize this term has become a conversation stopper or a cop-out. ‘It’s a mystery’ can be an expression of laziness, as if we don’t want to meditate further on truth or difficult questions. But in its best sense, calling an event, a story, or a sacrament a mystery is an invitation to step further into the inexhaustible depths of the thing.
We will never exhaust the heights and depths of meaning in the ascension of Jesus. I recounted the basic beliefs about the ascension a few moments ago, but that doesn’t mean we stop there. A mystery invites us to enter evermore into its depth, though we will never reach its fullness in our own strength and knowledge. A mystery invites us to encounter the glory of God for the sake of growing more fervent in worship, adoration, and service. That’s the refrain I’ve kept hearing in daily prayer this Eastertide: ‘If then you have been raised with
Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.’
I’ve celebrated the ascension of Jesus for nine years in this church. I feel like I’m only at the beginning. But I’ve seen more of God’s beauty and glory because together we’ve returned to this mystery for nine years, ‘seeking the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.’
Maybe that’s some of the logic of celebrating these feast days every year. One year isn’t enough. The mystery of God in one event is too vast to comprehend in one annual celebration. And we keep returning to these same events year after year because of a simple, yet profound truth: we believe these Jesus events reveal what it means to be fully human; we believe they reveal the depths and heights of God in all his love and glory.
So, in my ninth year of celebrating Ascension, here’s what I’m seeing that’s new; or, new-to-me; or, its-been-there-all-along-but-because-I’m-thick-it-seems- really-new. It’s this truth: I cannot see the glory of Christ’s ascension unless I remember his descent into the dead. To see and celebrate the Ascension in greater fullness, you have to go back to Holy Saturday. What happened on Holy Saturday? This is the day between Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection when he descended to the dead, to free Adam and Eve from their ancient curse. In the ancient icon of this event, Christ holds Adam and Eve by the wrists. It is a symbol that Adam and Eve cannot lift themselves out of their sin and despair. Why does Christ descend to the dead? Because Adam and Eve were made for ascension. Adam and Eve were created in the image of God which means they were created for fullness of glory. When they dwell in the ultimate absence of glory, who pursues them there? That same Palestinian man conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. Now he’s suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead because men and women were created to ascend to the Father. Ascension is burning in their hearts but they cannot climb out of that pit by themselves.
When Jesus ascended into heaven, the early church began to understand the ancient words of Psalm 68 in an entirely new light. The ancient psalmist wrote, ‘when he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and gave gifts to men.’ After Jesus’ ascension, Paul wrote to the Ephesians, quoted Psalm 68 and added, ‘In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) Jesus would not ascend to the Father for his own sake. He ascends to the Father because his mission is to free the captives of death and despair, to bring their restored humanity into the glory of God once again.
No matter the suffering, the separation, the sin, the sadness, all human beings are made to ascend to the Father. That’s the image of God present in every man, woman, and child. James K.A. Smith rephrased this classic quotation from Augustine, ‘You have made us for yourself, and our gut will rumble until we feed on you.’ We were made for beauty, we were made for glory, we were made to ascend into the full presence of the Father.
There are numerous examples in our culture that we were made for ascension, but music seems to be one of the most poignant signs of our longing for the transcendent. Even in the most undesirable places of our world, the longing for ascension breaks out.
Catuera, Paraguay is just such a place. Catuera is a slum village built on top of a landfill, where 2,500 families make a living by separating garbage for recycling. Water quality is terrible and about 1500 tons of solid waste arrive each day. And yet in this place filled with garbage, beauty is breaking out. Residents working the landfills began taking leftover materials and assembling people’s trash into musical instruments. Juan Manuel Chavez is a teenager who plays a cello that was assembled from an old oil can, scrap wood, and cooking tools that had been thrown away. In a documentary called The Landfill Harmonic, Chavez describes the construction of his cello and proceeds to play the first piece of Bach’s Cello Suites.
I wrote my ordination papers to Bach’s Cello Suites. Yo Yo Ma may play with the best technique, but I’ve even more inspired by that music when Chavez played from his oil can cello. Because Juan Manuel Chavez was made for ascension.
Together the village has assembled numerous instruments and have organized a small orchestra called The Recycled Orchestra. The orchestra’s director, Favio Chavez, says, ‘The world sends us garbage. We send back music.’ We were made for beauty. We were made for ascension. In the depths of poverty, the most beautiful melody can arise.
What is true of material poverty is also true of emotional and spiritual poverty. In the depths of depression, there remains the longing for ascension. For the most rebellious and arrogant sinner, there may be deep anger, greed, and lust, but these are all distortions of something that still remains: a heart longing for ascension. No matter what holds us captive, no matter how far we have fallen, no matter how long it’s been since you felt anything inside, Jesus descends to the place of your captivity and darkness so you can ascend to the Father.
Even when you’ve forgotten who you are, Christ remembers and sees the image in which you are made: it is his own. He sees a heart longing for ascension. He knows we cannot sustain ourselves until his second coming. He has given us his real presence to sustain us until that ultimate moment when heaven and earth are made one. This is why we ask for the Lord’s help when we say, ‘Lift up your hearts.’ And we draw on the Lord’s strength to say ‘We lift them up to the Lord.’ From there we ascend to the Lord; we rise from our place to receive the body and blood of Christ.
And then we are sent forth into the world with new eyes. When you’ve experienced ascension in worship, you’re called to see that ascension longing, not just in yourself, but in every man, woman, and child. How could we ascend to the Father for our own sakes? That just isn’t the way of Jesus. We experience ascension praying that all captives held by any captivity will be reunited with our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, forevermore. Amen.
- “Scott Kelly answers your questions about life in space” CNN.com, https://goo.gl/vPSwfe Ascension Sunday, Easter 7C; Apostles Anglican Church; May 8, 2016.
- ‘ Colossians 3:1
- Psalm 68.18
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Eph 4:9–10.
- James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love, 58.
Image by Daniel Hoherd (used by permission via Creative Commons).