It’s now many years since the British celebrated Ascension Day like other Europeans. Have we lost touch with the ascension as good news?
I confess that I am unimpressed by the rock at the Mosque of the Ascension, the one Jesus’ foot cracked on takeoff. I am unmoved by depictions of holy feet topped by hairy ankles lifting off like a Saturn Five — “See the canny Scot return to his native Bannockburn.” Any depiction of this transition as a return to HQ, or the shedding of physicality, makes it less than good news. It blazes a trail all follow towards their destiny. It illuminates our present humanity.
Bishop Christopher Wordsworth put it like this in 1862:
He has raised our human nature in the clouds to God’s right hand;Classical Christian theology calls Jesus eternally Incarnate. The Ascension is not the reversal of the Incarnation but a radical extension of it beyond time and place, into the depths of all human life as well as to its ultimate destiny.
There we sit in heavenly places, there with Him in glory stand:
Jesus reigns, adored by angels; man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord in Thine ascension we by faith behold our own.
If we understand this we can no longer think anything human alien from us or beneath us.
This matters because one easy response to stress-induced change is “stop the world, I want to get off.”
A popular Christian version takes the form of railing against the world as it actually is, often because of romantic attachment to some imagined age of faith in the past, served up with a dash of “here’s to us, who’s like us.” It might be a lot of fun to live in the twelfth century, or perhaps not. It is no part of our calling as a Christian. All ages are provisional, but this does not require us to be anything less than realistic about the one we’re called to live in.
The ascension frees Jesus from any particular age. Its result is not subtractive delocalisation but hyper localisation. This makes the gospel potentially good news for everybody and anybody, far more than a tribal identity. The Church becomes an expression of Christ’s universal servant kingship to others as they are rather than a club, or a vehicle for human imperialism. Christ's body reveals itself as what it is not by cutting others out, but by serving anybody on their own terms at their point of need, as in the parable of the good Samaritan. It is transferability makes Christianity fly. Its scope is infinite, and infinitely adaptable.
Club Christianity represents less than the stature of the fulness of Christ who fills all things. It speaks with the voice of Scribes and Pharisees, and not with authority. Its god is too small.
The mystery of the ascension invites us to radical deep engagement, the enfleshing of the Word in the world as it is, not a Gnostic cop-out.