“Now as he blessed them, he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven”
~ Luke 24. 51 NJB ~
Easter is over. The Ascension marks the end of the season in which we remember the appearances of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples after the Crucifixion.[/vc_column_text]
But what exactly does this mean.
The language of the ascension that we read in the New Testament (notably the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles) is rooted in a particular worldview, literally. This is a view of the cosmos that was common in the ancient world. There is the Earth on which we live. Beneath the earth is the underworld – the place of the dead in ancient Jewish theology called Sheol, or the Underworld in Greco-Roman mythologies, which early Christians also sometimes described as Hell. Above the earth is the sky, above which is the firmament of stars. Beyond this is heaven, where God dwelt.
One does not need more than the basics of astronomy to know that this cosmology is wrong. Beneath the earth is the earth’s molten core; above us is the sky or atmosphere; and beyond the atmosphere of our planet is the ever-expanding universe.
Religious cosmologists would argue that God is both in and beyond this material universe in which we live. Some call this panentheism – God in everything, and everything within God. So where is heaven?
It is better for us to see heaven as not so much a geographical place as a state of being – union with God. So when Jesus ascends into heaven, it means that the risen Christ is now in union with God. He is ‘where’ he always was: the second person of the Trinity in everything, and all the universe in the Trinity.
The disciples will see him no longer. But this is good news.
It is good news because they no longer ‘cling to’ the Risen Christ but are now in him in a profound way. They are now missioned to proclaim him to the world. Whereas once they waited to see him in person, they now experience his presence in the world. The risen Christ has entered into the very depth of the universe. His disciples’ task is to acknowledge and proclaim that presence.
And what of the descendants of the disciples? Our task is to carry on their mission, proclaiming that God is still with us as we live out his teachings. Since, I suggest, the Risen Christ is in everything, and everything is in the Risen Christ, part of this mission is to care for creation itself, which is in a certain way God’s Body, the body of Christ.