Perhaps some of you remember Sputnik going into space in 1957, and then in 1961, when Yuri Gagarin made that first manned space flight. Apparently some were concerned that the godless Russian might use his craft to break physically into heaven. Others pointed out that Gagarin was not the first person in space, but the fifth, because the Bible tells us that Elijah
and then Enoch and then Jesus ascended to heaven, and some Roman Catholics believe that the Virgin Mary was physically assumed into heaven. If you think of heaven as something physical in the sky, you can see why people need a ‘fast track’ route for special people – a kind of ‘Club Lounge’ in an airport – to by-pass the queues the rest of have to endure as we check in.
At the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk (not one of my regular hang outs) there’s a side chapel dedicated to the Ascension, which features a large plaster pair of feet dangling from the ceiling. A little closer to home territory, there’s an ancient window in the chapel of The Queen’s College, Oxford, which depicts a group of disconsolate disciples gazing up at a cloud from which a pair of bare feet are protruding.
Before we laugh, with our modern understanding of how God has made this world to work, we need to remember that the early followers of Jesus were rooted in the traditions of the Hebrew Bible, where Elijah and Enoch ascended to heaven, and although Jesus was risen, there was no longer a physical Jesus walking around. With their pre-scientific understanding of the world the ascension was the only way to understand – they weren’t idiots, they were making sense within the world view in which they lived.
So you might be thinking that the ascension is a fictional story of something that couldn’t have happened, written by people in an age when they still thought the earth was flat, of no relevance to us today. On the other you might think that, although impossible to explain in modern rational and scientific terms, it is a description of an actual historical event, a literal truth.
The trouble with both those positions, although validly held by many, is that it all seems irrelevant to most people’s lives. Our hopes and our fears don’t find an answer or a response in either dismissing the story as fiction, or taking it as a literal account of a historical event.
I’d like to suggest a different approach to those two extreme points of view, which neither denies the event, nor the developments of our intellect over many centuries.
The ascension is about the relationship between the physical world touching the spir¬itual realm, and an encouragement to us to hold them together. George Macleod, the founder of the Iona Community, talked about the island of Iona as a thin place, meaning earth and heaven feel closer than normal. That’s an aspect of the ascension reminding us as things we cannot quite touch, but to which we’re none-the-less close.
Another aspect of the Ascension is value. Height is a symbol of value. We speak of a football team going up to a higher division. We talk of the upper House of Parliament, of “climbing career ladders”. And the Ascension of Jesus carries the idea not just of a transfer from physical to spiritu¬al existence, but of a move by Jesus from lowly human status to his real place of authority within creation. God “raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion. . . and he has put all things under his feet”. There’s something aspirational for us as human beings – we are perhaps more important to God than we sometimes think. Our physical existence has spiritual significance as well.
So, although some of us may not completely share the sim¬ple and straightforward view of those who designed the chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham, or the window in The Queen’s College, Oxford, Jesus’ Ascension can still speak to us, helping us to take a God-like view of things, to rise above our usual limitations, to see the glory of a life set free from Fear.
The key to making sense of the ascension lies not in seeking a complete explanation of the practicalities, nor in debating whether it actually happened or not, but rather it’s to be found with the group of disciples gazing up like specta¬tors at the launch of a hot-air balloon. They didn’t understand what was hap¬pening in detail. They were aware of loss, the final departure of Jesus, but it was with the warm glow of his blessing. Their call to ministry had not ended. So they returned to Jerusalem and got on with their lives with a new sense of spiritual worth and physical purpose. And that should be the main message of the Ascension for us.
The Ascension is an expression of the universality of Christ. It proclaims that Christ is ever present to inspire and help us, his servants and friends, not in one place or time, but in all places and all times.
I end with a sonnet by Malcolm Guite, a priest in Cambridge:
We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed.