This week, Christians celebrate Ascension Day. One might think of it as a transitional sort of celebration. Based on stories found at the end of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of the Book of Acts, which speak of Jesus as withdrawing from the disciples into heaven (in Luke) or being lifted into the sky and then disappearing into a cloud (in Acts), Ascension marks the end of the appearances of the Risen Christ to his followers. As such, it is a transition between a faith that was sustained by personal encounter with Christ to a faith that is sustained by a remembrance of Christ in word, sacrament, and community, and rooted in Spirit.
For me, the essential meaning of Ascension Day is expressed in this line from the Book of Common Prayer’s Collect (or prayer) for Ascension Day: “Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things”. This line of the prayer highlights Ascension Day not only as a transition point in the faith of the Christian community, but also as a profound act of giving Christ away. I think it is common to think of the Ascension as the personal presence of Christ somehow being taken away, but the story becomes much more powerful to me when I think of it as a story about the church, the community of Jesus’ followers, giving Christ away, letting go of the personal Jesus so that the cosmic Christ might be given to the world, to the universe, to “fill all things”. Indeed, it is not only a giving away but also a giving back. For in Christ, the cosmic, the transcendent, the eternal became briefly present and manifest in a human life so that we might know ourselves beloved by God. In the Ascension, that which became flesh in Jesus is returned to the cosmos. And yet, in the Spirit, our relationship with God in Christ continues.
I also deeply appreciate the phrase, “ascended far above all heavens”. This phrase presents us with a large image that shatters our imaginations. It says to us that this return of Christ to the cosmos goes beyond any notion we might have of “heaven”. Christ goes far beyond “all heavens” that we might invent, including those heavens in which we delight because we imagine them to have rather exclusive memberships. As Jesus challenged the religious ideas and categories of his time in profound ways, so the living Christ continues to challenge our ideas and categories by moving far beyond them and beckoning us to follow.
And so Ascension Day reminds me that so much of what I think I know, so many of my certainties, are really quite provisional. Christ is far bigger than my imagination, far bigger than the limits of my own thinking and understanding. That is not to say that Christ is unknowable, because if that were the case, then no relationship with Christ through the Spirit would be possible. It is a reminder, however, that within the confines of my human life, Christ can only be known in part. God can only be known in part. And if I imagine myself to know Christ fully, if I imagine that I have figured God out, then I will have adopted a conceit that can only lead to disaster.
At the end of the Ascension story in the Book of Acts, the disciples are left standing, looking up into the sky where Jesus is no more to be seen. They are no doubt left standing in wonder, faced with a mystery that they cannot entirely solve. Two men dressed in white are said to have shaken them from their wondering by asking why they are staring up into the sky. Their work, their lives, are in the world, among the human family, to whom they must now bring the message of the Gospel. Yet the wondering will always be there, their curiosity about the mystery will never fully disappear. And that is as it should be. For a healthy faith always includes a dimension of wonder and an appreciation for mystery. Ascension Day affords us an opportunity to wonder at the mystery of the Christ who shatters all of our imagined heavens in order to fill all things.