By The Rev. Porter Taylor
Today the Church celebrates Ascension Day. The readings for the day are Psalm 47 (or Psalm 93), Acts 1:1-22, Ephesians 1:15-23, and Luke 24:44-53.
The Collect: Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Our family spent the majority of this recent three-day weekend working on jigsaw puzzles. Yes, you heard me right…puzzles: because what would a family with three young boys, two cats, and an overly clumsy/messy father want more than 2,000 tiny little puzzle pieces?! The first puzzle was a whimsical landscape of book covers called “Bedtime Stories,” and our current project is a slightly more involved effort featuring the cover of an edition of The New Yorker. The thrill of finding the corners, then searching for the edges, and then beginning the slow and rewarding work of filling in the center is pretty indescribable…or utterly frustrating, bordering along the lines of existential crisis if things go poorly. I might be a little dramatic about my love of puzzles, but let’s be honest for a minute: The Ascension is one of those theological puzzle pieces which we have a hard time placing. (Bet you didn’t see that transition coming.)
Theologians and biblical scholars have squabbled over the nature of the Ascension; i.e. if heaven isn’t a physical place “above” us then where did Jesus go? Did He really ascend? Did He end up in outer space? You can see how this might become overly taxing. To keep with the analogy, one might say that theologians have disagreed as to whether or not the Ascension is a corner piece (essential to theology), an edge (significant though not necessarily as foundational as a corner), or a center piece (you need it for the overall puzzle but it gets lost in the shuffle).
Instead of arguing about the physics behind Jesus’ Ascension, I think we would be better served to ask two questions: What does it mean, and why does it matter?
We are flooded with follow up questions in our search for understanding: Is the Ascension simply the “ritual act” performed to get Jesus from earth to heaven? Is the only meaning for this day found in the fact that it happens ten days before Pentecost? Or does the meaning stem from the giving of the Great Commission?
At the core, the Ascension is about authority and power.
We would be right in highlighting Jesus’ statement to the disciples that they should wait in the city until “clothed with power from on high.” This is clearly a foretelling of Pentecost and Spirit-power. We would also be correct in mentioning Jesus’ statement that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…” and that it is this clause which grounds the Great Commission. However, we do not go far enough if this is our only discussion of power and authority.
The primary focus of these Ascension stories is not the power which is soon to come to the disciples, but the fact that Jesus has all power in heaven and on earth and that He is ascending to the right hand of the Father from whence He will rule over all things. In fact, He is ruling over all things. Now. Here in the present tense. This is why Paul can write to the church in Colossae and say:
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
The disciples were witnesses to the Ascension and after worshipping Jesus—something reserved only for God—they bore witness to His power and authority through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. The power which clothed them on high was none other than the power and authority of Jesus. After the Resurrection, Jesus told His disciples that He was giving them His peace, now He has given His authority as well. The disciples were to baptize, teach, proclaim, drive out demons, heal the sick, and profess the faith of Christ crucified, risen, and exalted.
We miss this point when we get lost in the minutiae of the puzzle as we seek to put yet another random piece next to another. We need to zoom out, as it were, and look at the puzzle box to the see the whole picture. Seen in proper context, the Ascension is the culmination of Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. The power of God, His majestic and cosmic authority, is portrayed most fully and tangibly through the person of Jesus. We celebrate the Ascension because we celebrate this power, Jesus’ reign and rule over all things. We are lovingly and graciously beckoned to participate as co-regents, co-rulers of the Kingdom; the meaning of Ascension, however, is not about what we get but who Jesus is.
Reflect on this as you proclaim your faith through the words of the Nicene Creed. As you say, “he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end…” Jesus high and lifted up, seated upon the throne, ruling over all things, reigning over all that is seen and unseen, that is Ascension. That is our feast. He is seated upon the throne having been exalted there by the Father and it is from there that He rules over all.