Jesus’ ascension into heaven is a good case study of how Christian belief evolves over the centuries. Statements of belief are interpretations of our faith. Like all human understanding, they are ongoing and developmental.
Once upon a time, for example, Jewish and Christian believers understood the story of Noah and the ark as an historic event. Today we understand it as biblical mythology. Jesus’ ascension up to heaven may not be a myth but it is highly symbolic.
Two brief accounts of Jesus’ ascension are found in the “longer ending” to the Gospel According to Mark (16:19) and in the Gospel According to Luke. (24:50-53). A more detailed account is found in Acts of the Apostles (1:9-11). Jesus’ ascension into heaven is proclaimed as well in both the Nicene Creed (written during the fourth century C.E.) and the Apostles’ Creed (developed between the second and ninth centuries C.E. as a baptismal creed for new Christians). The Feast of the Ascension, celebrated on a Thursday forty days after Easter has long been a major holy day in the Christian liturgical year. (In most Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States, however, the celebration of Ascension has been transferred to the following Sunday.)
Most basically, the Ascension reaffirms the Resurrection. The post-death glorified Jesus is with God. (Perhaps it makes good sense to celebrate Ascension on the Day of the Resurrection? The Gospel According to Luke has both occur on the same day. The U.S. bishops, however, transferred the feast to Sunday because so few people were showing up on Ascension Thursday.)
The imagery of the Ascension, of course, is based on the ancient Hebrew and early Christian cosmology of the flat earth and triple level universe. (See the illustration.) Today we find this explanation of our earth and the solar system quaint, archaic, and scientifically naïve. For people “back then” it was very real indeed and they constructed their theological understanding around it as well. A highly anthropomorphized God the Father sat high up in the upper heaven on his throne. When early Christians contemplated Jesus-raised-from-the-dead, it made good theological sense to them that the Son of God, in the glory of the Resurrection, should also be up there in the high heaven “seated at the right hand of the Father.”
Early Christians, like the author of Acts of the Apostles, pondered how the (overly physicalized) Resurrected Jesus would get up to the (very physicalized) high heaven. The cloud elevator was the obvious solution. (Actually, much later, there was a similar line of thought, when Pope Pius XII proclaimed in 1950 that the Virgin Mary was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.)
Neither contemporary science nor contemporary theology understands God to be up there on a heavenly throne. Our faith experience, our understanding of God, is one of nearness: loving and close intimacy. As we understand and rephrase our belief, we are keenly aware that all language about God is analogical: it points to God but does not contain nor confine God. Our words are pointers toward God. God is LIKE ultimate “Father,” or “Mother,” or “most supportive Friend,” or “Ground of Being,” etc., etc.,
And so the Ascension. What does it mean today? The Resurrected Jesus is so intimately linked with God that “he and the Father are one” and he is one with us as well. Closer to us than the air in our lungs…All Christian life is a Divine communion. No small thing indeed.
And the old cosmology drifts off silently into the past. It worked fine for a while….
(Next week some thoughts about being an apostle….)