I love Walsingham and I have been going there regularly ever since I was a small child. One of the things I always did - and I still do - is go around every inch of the shrine looking at each little chapel…looking at all the art and images and working out what each one is trying to say or communicate….one of my favourites was and continues to be the orthodox Chapel at the top of the stairs – but the one I really used to love…and I’m afraid not necessarily for very holy reasons - was the Chapel of the Ascension - with its distinctive - and to a child’s eyes – rather amusing - cloud encapsulated pair of feet disappearing into the ceiling. I used to think…what one earth is all this about???
Well this image has stayed with me and has inspired an intertest in me about the Ascension ever since.
I think the Ascension, celebrated 40 days after Easter, is by most not well understood despite its importance to our Christian Faith …its importance is reflected in the Creed….. ….. but what does this all mean???
Ok some key questions that I think the Ascension asks us as Christians…..
What does the Ascension tell us about who Jesus is?
Where is Jesus now?
Is heaven literally above us?
Is Jesus in heaven spirit or human?
If Jesus is physically in heaven how can he be with us in prayer, worship and the sacraments?
If Jesus is now Spirit why is there need for the Holy Spirit?
What exactly is Jesus doing in heaven and will he return?
What is the link between the Holy Spirit and Ascension?
What does the Ascension mean for us today?
They are good questions I think and because the Ascension has such a low profile in the life of the Church, I think lots of Christians struggle with what are the fundamentals of our faith.
So for many of us thinking about Jesus bodily going into heaven is quite challenging and we might understand it as some sort of prescientific mythological idea and quite frankly you might be asking what does this have to do with me?
In society today and indeed within the church we have lost the Jewish understanding of Heaven and Earth – and we need to recover this if we are to understand the Ascension and it meaning.
Generally our understand of these matters comes from the Greeks –. Now the Greeks were really influenced by people like Plato - where really the main point of existence is to escape from this temporary pretty horrible world to get into the spiritual world - you see for the Greeks bodies were prisons that the soul longs to escape from - you see in this way death was a release - salvation is getting off the world and into the spiritual into heaven.
Now this Greek idea has invaded our thinking and in fact you can see some of this invasion in the new Testament – many of the church fathers and mothers including Augustine were very affected by it.
But the bottom line is for Jews and for Jesus and therefore our understanding of God - this is wrong and simply not the order of things. In Jewish theology heaven is the realm of God and angels and earth is the realm of humans and all creation - yes they are different and separate but they’re not in some radical metaphysical opposition.
No. Heaven and earth are impinging on each other - like interlocking hands - they touch upon each other in all kinds of ways - in this way salvation is not an escape from the earthly but the Transfiguration of creation into heaven. It is the coming of the two back into full unity that constitutes salvation.
Think about that very Jewish style prayer given to us by Jesus - the Our Father - in this prayer we are not taught to pray in order to escape the world - no we are asked to pray that God’s kingdom will be known and will come to earth as it is in heaven. That’s Gods Kingdom of peace will embrace both - fully and totally.
When we look at the book of Revelation - the world is not destroyed in the apocalypse - but healed - heaven and earth are united in a new creation - literally heaven on earth - the reunion of spirit and matter.
I’ll keep going on this point a little bit more. Think about the resurrection in this biblical understanding of heaven and earth.
The resurrection isn’t about Jesus escaping from his body is it - you see the resurrection isn’t a Greek idea but a Jewish understanding - the risen Jesus is embodied - he carries his wounds, he eats - he’s not a ghost or a soul - he is creation transfigured by heaven - he is the new Adam - the very embodiment of the healing of heaven and earth seen in the apocalypse.
In the account of the Ascension we have the promise of the arrival of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus enters the heavenly realms - something in return enters the earthly realms – the Holy Spirit. It is through the action and presence of the Holy Spirt that the other two persons of the Holy Spirit – Our Heavenly Father and the embodied Christ are able to be known and experienced here on earth. This is the meaning of the Trinitarian Relationship and therefore of our Trinitarian faith.
So finally…what does this all mean for me……
If you recall at the end of our reading in Acts, Jesus ascends to a higher dimension - and two angels appear - and the response is really curious - which is don’t just stand there - he will come back the way he left - and the message is clear - now you go and do what he started - you go and work towards that union of heaven and earth. You go and collaborate with God in the creation of his kingdom here on earth. You go and share the good News of Christ. It is the commission of the church to do its great work.
So, the Ascension tells us a great deal about Jesus and our faith
That Jesus after his resurrection - in his transfigured state - remains both fully human and fully divine.
In the Ascension account we discover that heaven and earth are not radically opposing or different dimensions but interrelated and destined by the will of God to become one.
That Jesus is now in heaven - in his transfigured state of both creation and Spirit - of both heaven and earth.
It also tells us that he will return to earth - at the time ordained by God - in this transfigured state - to judge and bring about healing of the earth.
Through the revelation of Pentecost we come to know and understand that Jesus is in heaven and becomes present in the world through the third person of the Trinity - the Holy Spirit.
Through the charge of the angels we come to understand what the Ascension means for us today - that we are to continue in Christ’s work - through the help of the Holy Spirit - in helping to establish God’s kingdom here on earth.
The questions therefore has to be asked - how are you working to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth? If Jesus was to return now and ask you - How are you healing? How are you loving? How are you sharing the Good News of Forgiveness and Salvation? What would your answer be?
If your answers to these questions are worrying or lacking - you are in good company and you are not alone. The Good News is that through Christ it is never too later to say sorry, its never too late to start again.
Invite you today, as you receive the Eucharist - as you come into contact with that place where heaven and earth meet – were you come into direct communion with Jesus through the Holy Spirit – that make a renewed commitment to listen to those angels - and that you really roll up your sleeves and start working with Christ in the transformation of this world into Gods Kingdom of love and peace.