Exalted at the Right Hand of God:
"He Ascended into Heaven"

For Sunday June 1, 2014

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Acts 1:6–14

Psalm 68:1–10, 32–35

1 Peter 4:12–14; 5:6–11

John 17:1–11

           We're now some forty days after Easter. Next Sunday is Pentecost. This week, between those liturgical milestones, we celebrate the ascension of Jesus.

           Just as Jesus "came down" to earth in the incarnation, he now "goes up" to heaven in the ascension. And after Jesus "goes up" in the ascension, the Spirit of God will "come down" on the believers at Pentecost. I use quotation marks because the Biblical writers might have intended for us to understand their language of ascent and descent as metaphorical rather than literal.

Ivory plaque, c. 400, Italy. The earliest ascension image?
Ivory plaque, c. 400, Italy. The earliest ascension image?

           Matthew and John don't include the story of the ascension, nor does Mark (except in the spurious longer ending). Luke mentions the ascension in his gospel and in Acts. He writes that forty days after his resurrection, Jesus "was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight," and so he was "taken from them into heaven."

           In addition to Luke, there are another twenty or so references that allude to the ascension.

           By the late second century, Christians confessed the ascension in the Apostles' Creed: "He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father."

           St. Augustine writes that the Feast of the Ascension was widely observed long before his time. Art and architecture also honored the ascension. By 384, an exact place on the Mount of Olives was venerated. In 390, a wealthy Roman woman named Poimenia financed the construction of the Chapel of the Ascension.

           In our creeds and confessions, art and architecture — from Syrian illuminated manuscripts to Danish wall paintings, Christians have professed their belief in the ascension.

Rabbula Gospel, c. 586, Syria.
Rabbula Gospel, c. 586, Syria.

           But what does it mean? The painting of the ascension by the Italian Andrea Mantegna, and hundreds of others like it, begs this question. It contrasts heaven "above" and earth "below," with Jesus hovering in between, surrounded by winged angels. Is that what really happened? Is that what it looked like?

           The Jesus Seminar rejects the ascension as a literary fiction. Sceptics dismiss it as an embarrassing example of a pre-critical cosmology. Literalist interpretations make the sacred story absurd.

           In The Big Questions in Science and Religion (2008), the Oxford theologian and ordained Anglican priest Keith Ward captures the clash of cosmologies that we experience with the ascension story. He writes: "We now know that, if [Jesus] began ascending two thousand years ago, he would not yet have left the Milky Way (unless he attained warp speed)."

           Our ideas today about space and time are different from those in Luke's day. Paul described a three-tier universe in Philippians 2:10: "in heaven and on earth and under the earth."

           It's tempting to contrast the outmoded cosmology of Luke with the updated cosmology of contemporary physics. But this isn't as easy as it seems, nor does it help much.

           I don't expect Luke to have known modern cosmology. He believed the best cosmology of his day — Ptolemy's geocentric view of the world, which reigned for a thousand years as the most authoritative view until Copernicus demonstrated that it was badly wrong in 1543.

Drogo Sacramentary, c. 850.
Drogo Sacramentary, c. 850.

           Similarly, today's cosmologies will look crude two thousand years from now (if not much sooner). I recently read an article by Freeman Dyson of Princeton about a new book by the astrophysicist Mario Livio, called Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein — Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe (2013). It's misleading to privilege any cosmology, whether ancient or modern, as a final picture of the world for all time.

           Today we think about space in three dimensions — latitude or length, longitude or width, and altitude or height. To these we ad the fourth dimension of time. This view of the world might turn out to be rudimentary at best if string theorists are correct.

           So-called "M-Theory" proposes 11 dimensions. Stephen Hawking thinks that M-theory is "the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe." But these are cosmological theories and not empirical conclusions, so other prominent physicists like Richard Feynman and Roger Penrose think string theory fails as a "theory of everything."

           The ascension was described by Luke within the context of an imperfect cosmology, which has since been supplanted by our own imperfect cosmology. I don't believe that Jesus ascended "up" in the sense of Mantegna's painting or Keith Ward's quotation, although it might have looked something like that. I do believe that Jesus literally exists in another dimension that is best described symbolically or metaphorically.

           Stephen Davis of Claremont University puts it this way: "I do not believe that in the Ascension Jesus went up, kept going until he achieved escape velocity from the earth, and then kept moving until he got to heaven, as if heaven were located somewhere in space. The Ascension of Jesus was primarily a change of state rather than a change of location. Jesus changed in the Ascension from being present in the realm of space and time to being present in the realm of eternity, in the transcendent heavenly realm."

Danish church wall painting, c. 1525.
Danish church wall painting, c. 1525.

           In the symbolic language of the early creeds, with the ascension, Jesus is now "exalted at the right hand of the Father."

           And with Pentecost next week, the Spirit of God, "who with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified," descends like a violent wind and burning fire.

           Which is to say that our Christian story is deeply Trinitarian.

           Our finite language about the ascension, limited by every cosmology of every age, is necessarily symbolic and metaphorical. It points to literal realities that are infinite and therefore indescribable.

For further reflection:

For the other allusions to the ascension, see John 3:13; 6:62; 8:14, 21; 13:3, 33, 36; 14:4-5, 28; 16:5, 10, 17, 28; 20:17; Acts 2:30-33; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; 4:8-10; I Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 4:14; I Peter 3:22

Cf. the poem "Ascension" by Denise Levertov, from her book The Stream and the Sapphire (1997).

Andrea Mantegna, 1431-1506.
Andrea Mantegna, 1431-1506.

Stretching Himself as if again,
through downpress of dust
upward, soil giving way
to thread of white, that reaches
for daylight, to open as green
leaf that it is...
Can Ascension
not have been
arduous, almost,
as the return
from Sheol, and
back through the tomb
into breath?
Matter reanimate
now must relinquish
itself, its
human cells,
molecules, five
senses, linear
vision endured
as Man—
the sole
all-encompassing gaze
resumed now,
Eye of Eternity.
Relinquished, earth's
broken Eden.
self-enjoined task
of Incarnation.
He again
Fathering Himself.
He again
Mothering His birth:
torture and bliss.

Image credits: (1) Wikipedia.org; (2) Wikipedia.org; (3) Wikipedia.org; (4) Princeton.edu; and (5) Vanderbilt.edu.