May God “give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation… so that, with
the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to
which he has called you” (Ephesians 1:17-18)
Ascension makes me wonder why at the end of his earthly time Jesus had to go up into the sky, rather than dissolve into air, walk away, go to Sheol underground, or Paradise/ Eden somewhere on earth? What is heaven, and why is it somewhere high up? Even our language both reflects this construct and conditions us to take it for granted, by equating “better” with “higher”. It’s a misnomer to call the greatest scores, marks, speed “top”, but we do it. Likewise, the most popular songs top the charts; most important items are high priority and top to-do lists; most influential people are part of high society; best students graduate top-of-the class. We raise or bring up our children, lift each up to feel better, lift up our hearts to pray, rise to the occasion, perceive the sun to rise. Even the Greek word for resurrection was literally “standing up again”. While self-abasement, putting people or animals down (with different results!), lowering standards, or sinking into oblivion are undesirable. So, if heaven is better than earth, it must be above it. If Jesus said that he was going to prepare a place for us and then went into the sky, then that’s where we will join him. Right? But as it turns out, this construct is not universal.
Heaven as “the better place in the sky that houses God and angels AND the deserving souls until the resurrection of the body” is a uniquely Christian view, fully developed only by the Middle Ages. As for the ancient Hebrews, their God lived in a tabernacle right in their midst. The surrounding cultures, and those from across the world, also envisioned their gods living on earth, in places high and low. But curiously, none of these belief systems connected God’s home with that of the human dead. The Egyptian underworld was just a mirror image of everything that’s on earth, and an average Jew expected to arrive in the underworld called Sheol – likely a Sumerian/Mesopotamian concept equivalent to Hades of the Greek – even if the chariot of fire did take Elijah to the sky, and Enoch simply “walked too far”. The apocalyptic Jewish theology evolved to include the final judgment and resurrection, but it had the righteous inhabit the earthly world “started over”, rather than earn their way into a special other place. None of these influences fully explain our heaven, or answer why Jesus ascended.
Perhaps, instead, the upward movement of Jesus to the Father reflects a much more consistent biblical pattern that extends from OT to NT, and has God-human encounters taking place upon mountain tops, as well as via Jacob’s ladder. That’s probably why to be with the Father, Jesus had to ascend, and to be with us, the Holy Spirit had to descend – but notice that these analogies are more about being in God’s presence, rather than in a better place or God’s special/only home. That’s why I hope that heaven is in no particular place, but rather a state; that it is in all physical places, and connects each current moment with eternity. The Eucharistic prayer for Ascension, which I will say today, summarizes this quite elegantly: “where he is, there we might also be.” But, I still wonder if it’s more appealing to think of traveling upward to meet God because to us, earthbound creatures, flying looks freeing. And our greatest desire is to be free.
Deceptively, flying appears to defy gravity, the most obvious law of the material world. Birds and clouds inspired the technology that eventually fulfilled our desire to break free from the earth without having to die. And upon the conclusion of the first ever human journey into space, Uri Gagarin supposedly said, “I looked and looked, and but I saw no God up here” (or similar). These may have been the words he – or rather, Khrushchev – said after he landed, but no official transcripts of his flight actually include them! And as I have learned recently, the world’s most famous atheist was known as a Christian to his friends, one of whom quoted him to have said instead, “An astronaut cannot be suspended in space and not have God in his mind and his heart.” No wonder he kept looking! But again, where he found him was not “up there,” but rather in his heart.
Does being so continually close to God increase or take away freedom? The psalms describe our inability to hide from God, and so some people think of religion as a set of rules designed to constrain our free spirit for better (to keep us from harming others), or for worse (to take away all the fun); and that God spies on us and makes sure we follow them. To me, this idea seems misguided and unproductive; for it is, in fact, the aspiration to climb the heights of this world that chains us down. As I said, our language reinforces societal pressures to move upwards, elevate ourselves, climb up career ladders, raise the bar, rise above the mediocre, be “above certain matters”. But what this often really means is simply to match what the rest of the world is doing: mostly, keep consuming what the brands want us to spend money on, and empower the constructs that demean and objectify us. Ascension does represent our intuition that we must break free; but it’s not from God that we need to be liberated! What we might need to say goodbye to is our own constructs to which we give way too much power over ourselves. And the word “goodbye” was originally a blessing, “God be with you.” May today’s observance inspire us to say goodbye to a few things today and make some room for God to be with us; to become free and emboldened to “rise”. Amen.
Questions for further thought:
1) To whom and/or to what have you recently had to say “goodbye”? What
goodbyes are you facing soon? How do you tend to cope with farewells?
2) Some traditional icons of Ascension do not show the full body of
Jesus rising into the sky, but only his feet. What does this say to
you? Does this hint that Jesus’ presence never fully goes away? Or
maybe, it is a reflection of our desire to hang on to the visible
signs of faith and tangible evidence of God’s activity. Or, it could
be a reminder that, in the words of St Teresa of Avila, “our feet are
to become his feet” (as well as our hands – his hands), thereby
fulfilling Jesus’ farewell benediction and ensuring that his Kingdom
comes on earth, as it is in heaven?
3) Does “rising up with Jesus” mean striving to become disconnected
and detached from this world? Is this an ideal to which we should
aspire or false dichotomy? Does your theology cause you to see
spiritual aspects and priorities of your life as “better” than those
that are physical/material? If yes, who taught you to approach life
this way? If not, do you find such a view simplistic or limiting?
4) What do you think of this idea: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)?
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