“People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:11)
The Ascension is an underappreciated aspect of the Jesus story in the life of the church, both theologically and liturgically. This is understandable; for many it tends to conjure “Beam me Up Scotty” escapist theology and rapture allergies. Certainly in radical circles the Ascension has been largely abandoned or ignored. I want to contend, however, that by doing this we are conceding to the trivializers an important trope of our faith.
40/50: Ascension Day in Church History and Culture
Ascension Day is an old feast of the church, dating back at least to the third century according to patristic witness. It is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday (also known as “Holy Thursday)), the fortieth day of Easter, though many churches now celebrate it on the following Sunday, he last of Eastertide. Next comes Pentecost: 50 days after Easter. We are, in other words, in deeply symbolic terrain, given the importance of both 40 (think years in the wilderness) and 50 (think Jubilee) in the biblical narrative.
Diverse traditions are associated with the Feast of the Ascension throughout church history. It was often celebrated with an all-night vigil. In some traditions of medieval theatricality, a statue of Christ would be hoisted above the altar and up through an opening in the roof. In others, an Epitaphios was taken from the altar following the reading of the Gospel and processed around the church. This was a large, embroidered cloth with an image of the dead body of Christ, accompanied by his mother and other figures. This suggested that somehow the Ascension wasn’t an abandonment of the somatic, as we shall see.
There is a more recent social history to the Feast as well. For example, in England during the early Industrial Revolution, Ascension Day occasioned the public “showing,” in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, of poor children who were part of charity schools run by the church. The great artist and writer William Blake was not impressed by this spectacle, in light of the vast disparities in wealth being generated by the new industrial economy. In his second “Holy Thursday” poem (1794; see image above), Blake protests
Is this a holy thing to seeIn a rich and fruitful landBabes reduced to miseryFed with cold and usurous hand?
With endemic child poverty, England would always be “a land of barren winter” (Marion Wright Edelman this week made the same argument in her critique of Trump’s new federal budget).
A century later, the feast of the Ascension became important to the Christian labor movement in Europe. The papal encyclical Rerum novarum (from its first two words, Latin for “of revolutionary change”) was issued by Pope Leo XIII on Ascension Day, 1891. Also known as the “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor,” this encyclical was a major pushback against the injustices of Guilded Age Industrial Capitalism, and is considered a foundational text of modern Catholic social teaching.
Finally, there is an agricultural angle. The Feast of Ascension traditionally lasted until the Friday before Pentecost. Interestingly, just as Pentecost (as the Jewish Feast of Shavuot, see more background here) was originally a blessing of first fruits in ancient Israel, so in Christian tradition fields have been blessed both on Rogation Sunday (the week before Ascension, as they were a couple of weeks ago at the Abundant Table Farm) and on Ascension Sunday.
Doubling Down on the Incarnation: Biblical and Theological Reflections
The Ascension “event” is only narrated by Luke, but he does it twice: ending his Gospel (Lk 24:44-53) and beginning Acts (1:6-12; both readings for Ascension Sunday). The notion of great figures ascending to heaven at the end of their lives was not uncommon in the literature of antiquity. This was a way of underlining the importance of their life and character. Biblically, however, there is more still. Two precedents in the Hebrew Bible are being invoked by Luke’s narrative, firmly anchoring it in the old story of Israel.
One is the story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28. Jacob falls asleep in the desert, his head on a dreaming stone, and has a vision of the cosmic axis mundi—angels are moving up and down a ladder-“wormhole” between heaven and earth. This dream causes Jacob, we should note, not to yearn for the heavenly world, but to realize the sacredness of earth: “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it!” he intones solemnly as he sets up a sacred cairn. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen 28:16-17). This is one of my favorite stories in the whole Bible, both primitivist manifesto and firm foundation for engaged ecospirituality.
The other precedent is the ascension of the great prophet Elijah at the sacred Jordan River (II Kings 2). Elijah lifts off in a fiery chariot while his disciple Elisha looks on perplexed, holding the prophetic mantle that represents his call to carry on Elijah’s work. There are particular resonances here with the gospel Ascension story—including the notion of disciples having received a prophetic vocation!
Still, this part of the Jesus tale is strange. Three questions (at least!) arise from it, and in each case I want to offer arguments as to why the Ascension is important to a theology and practice of radical discipleship.
Where did Jesus go? The idea of Jesus’ “heavenly enthronement” is laced throughout the N.T. epistolary traditions. Typical is Ephesians 1:20-23 (a reading for Ascension Day):
God’s great power was put to work in Christ when he was raised from the dead and seated at the right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and Power and Dominion, above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. God has put all things under his feet and has made Christ head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of the One who fills all in all. (See also Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; 1 Pet. 3:22; and Hebrews no less than four times!)
This image is obviously drawn from the ancient world of the near eastern royal court, not in order to affirm that paradigm of rule, but to make sure the reader understands that this is a political metaphor. The astonishing claim—Paul called it a “stumbling block” to conventional understanding—is that the One who was executed by the Powers now has sovereignty over them!
The heavenly spatiality is perplexing to moderns, of course, but what it symbolizes is crucial: that space in which (as the Lord’s Prayers puts it) “God’s will is done,” and where the Powers of domination have been overthrown. We don’t know when or how this “realm” will ever come to be “on earth,” but it seems to me that it is of utmost importance that our Christian imagination clings to the notion that “there is a there there.” The conviction that such a space where all life is liberated from the Powers is not only possible but actually exists is what keeps us going in the hard work of justice and resistance to those Powers on this side of history.
2. Did Jesus just abandon us? If Jesus came to be with us only to leave us again, how are we not still orphaned? Perhaps, as Peter Gross suggests, Jesus left so that “his disciples wouldn’t go looking for him, so that they wouldn’t be fooled by anyone on earth who claimed to be him.” But the Ascension is not about Christ’s absence, but a deeper presence. The N.T. emphasizes repeatedly that the Ascension brings a new solidarity, granting disciples even greater intimacy with and empowerment from Christ and God. As the Johannine tradition puts it in various ways, Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit, through whom we have deeper communion with God. But a third issue is perhaps the most important one, both theologically and politically.
3. Does the Ascension negate the Incarnation? Many Christians, particularly evangelicals, perceive the Ascension similarly to how they understand the resurrection: as a ticket to spiritualization. The scandal of the incarnation is dissolved. We don’t have to worry about the life of the body or about healing earth or history anymore, because it’s all about the life of the spirit and the end goal of heaven. In stark contrast to such escapist theology, the Ascension doubles down on the incarnation. Here’s what I mean. On one hand, Jesus ascension is still somatic. After all, Luke goes to great pains to present the Risen One as corporeal. But if somehow heaven is now a place for liberated real bodies, then theologically this knits earth and heaven indivisibly together, banishing all absolute dualism. On the other hand, because the Ascension also empowers the church to carry on the mission of Jesus, the incarnation remains present in history: as Paul puts it, we are now Christ’s body in the world. The Ascension has, in other words, inaugurated what we might call a double incarnation: the battered body of Jesus is in heaven, and the body of Christ-as-church attends to battered bodies on earth. This confirms why the struggle to heal bodies, including the body of earth, must be central part of our faith and practice.
Which is why, I suppose, Luke ends his account of the Ascension with those angels telling the disciples watching Jesus go up, up, up: “People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:11) Discipleship is not a spectator sport, and the focus of our work and witness is here.
The Feast of the Ascension as Antidote to Memorial Day
This year we are observing this Feast amidst what is frankly a far more sacred American holiday. Memorial Day is also about bodies, and the imperial tendency to spiritualize them: specifically, the bodies of American soldiers who have died in combat.
It is not inappropriate to honor fallen warriors—many of us have such in our families or friend circles. But we American Christians cannot do so without also remembering the people (both soldiers and civilians) killed, and societies destroyed, by our military, past and present. Or without naming the real reasons for these awful wars, which when unmasked, are almost never noble.
For the Church, the Feast of the Ascension offers a corrective to the imperial pageantry of Memorial Day, inviting (and inciting?) us to put Jesus’ living in the Way of Peace above the orthodoxy of war. May we resist the cult of military martyrdom by celebrating Christ’s triumph over Powers. And double down on our work of defending and healing vulnerable bodies, especially those who are marginalized at home and abroad.
When You did fulfill the dispensation for our sake,and unite earth to Heaven, You did ascend in glory, O Christ our God,not being parted from those who love You,But remaining with them and crying:“I am with you and no one will be against you.”
Words of the “Kontakion,” an ancient hymn sung on Ascension Day