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Ascension day is one of those days that Christians can easily miss – it takes place mid-week (on a Thursday) and is not a public holiday in most countries. And many would be hard pressed to give a good account of why the ascension is important. Fortunately, there are several online blogs that speak to the meaning of Christ’s ascension, e.g.,
But I find that the reasons many give are really descriptions of what Jesus does after his ascension – such as sitting at God’s right hand and sending Holy Spirit to us – rather than explanations of the ascension itself. Luke includes a narrative of the ascension both at the end of his Gospel narrative (Luke 24:50-51) and at the start of his sequel about the Apostles (Acts 1:9-10). Clearly, Luke thought the ascension was important.
Let me offer a way of thinking about the theological and practical significance of the ascension.
Let’s go back to the incarnation. In the incarnation God inserted God’s self into human nature at the conception. We can almost thinking that God integrated divine DNA into human DNA to create a new entity – a God-man – Jesus Christ. Orthodox theologians see the incarnation as central to salvation. God redeems and transforms human nature. (Click here to listen to a sermon where I set out the centrality of the incarnation in more detail.)
Let me suggest that in the ascension there is a similar but inverse process. As Jesus ascends to the Father, and as the triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is reunited in the ascension, God the Son brings with him some aspect of human nature, including his body, which is woven into the being of God.
What is the evidence for this? Perhaps most importantly, Luke emphasises in both narratives that Jesus ascended bodily, much as he rose bodily. When Jesus rises from dead, he rises with his body – he does not leave it behind and rise as a spiritual being. Of course, his body has been transformed – it has both physical and spiritual qualities. But the BODY is important. We affirm this in the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe … in the resurrection of the body”.
So too, in the ascension, Jesus rises with his body – he does not slough off his body, to release his spirit, which rises up to heaven. He ascends with his body. The disciples are described as “looking intently up into the sky as he was going” (Acts 1:10). It seems certain that Jesus physically rose up into the sky until he disappeared in the clouds.
Let me suggest, cautiously, that before the incarnation God did not have first-hand experience of what it is like to be a human being. God is spirit; God transcends time and space. But in the incarnation, God becomes a human being, with all of its limitations. God the Son experiences the joys and the pain of being human. He experiences friendship. He experiences betrayal, torture and death. When God the Son ascends bodily, these experiences are woven into the being of the triune God. God no longer just imagines what human life is like; God now truly and experientially knows what it is like to be human, with all its ups and down.
What this theology offers us in our daily life, is a deep assurance that God really knows what human life is like and what suffering feels like. God is not watching ‘from a distance’ (as Bette Midler so nicely sings). Rather, God is deeply immersed in our human experiences. So, when you are going through dark times, we can be sure that God is fully present with us in the darkness, experiencing them with us, sharing our pain and distress.
God is immediately available and fully experiences all we go through.
Featured image: Jesus ascending into heaven by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)