What can we make of the Ascension of Jesus?
Past Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams tries to explain it in this way:
“Imagine what it is like when you first wake up in the morning. When you put on the light, all you are conscious of is the brightness of the light itself. Only gradually do your eyes adjust sufficiently to the light that you are able to make out other objects. After a few moments, however, you cease to be conscious of the light itself, and start to see what else is in the room, as it is illumined by the light. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, says Williams, show him to have been like that initial morning light; at first Jesus’ resurrected self was so blinding that the disciples could be conscious only of him. The ascension, however, is that moment when the light itself recedes into the background, so that Jesus becomes the one through whom we see the rest of the world.”
(From Feasting on the Word, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., 2009, “Ascension of the Lord: Ephesians 1: 15-23 Theological Perspective”, by Joseph H. Britton, p. 510-512.)
At the edge of Ascensiontide, we know only the threshold beyond which Jesus has gone, into a cloud of luminous darkness. (Suzanne Guthrie)
Both of these quotes have something in common – they are filled with mystery. That is very appropriate, on this week. This is the week of Ascensiontide. We read the part of the story told to us in Acts chapter 1:6-14. It is the apostles’ last meeting with the resurrected Jesus. This whole part of the story of Jesus is filled with mystery and confusion, because we cannot understand it. Perhaps we cannot. Perhaps we are not meant to. People do not return from death. It can’t really be explained.
…except… Except that this is the reason that Christianity is distinct from all other faiths and belief systems. This is the deepest and most profound mystery of all for us. It is this very doctrine which sets us apart as a people of hope. It is the reason for the hope within us – that Jesus’ return from death says something about death itself, and the meaning of our lives.
Jesus says, in this passage from The Acts of the Apostles, that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them – power to be witnesses throughout the whole world.
The small band of wary disciples – tragically bereft and full of fear after Jesus’ crucifixion – had locked themselves in their upper room. They were frightened of the leaders of the Jews – the temple authorities, the Pharisees, the Lawyers. But perhaps they were most afraid of Jesus himself. What if the strange things he had said in those last days came true? What if he came back from the dead?
They saw him crucified, and fled. They saw his tomb. They saw him buried. They knew he was gone. But what on earth could it mean if he retuned? No wonder his first word to them was the age-old greeting of angels and other terrifying messengers: “Do not be afraid!”
But now, through a haze of confusion, over the past weeks, they have encountered his physical presence in many strange ways. Sometimes, as Rowan Williams describes, he was too bright to really see. Other times, he seemed unlike the Jesus they remembered. At other times, he was their friend – eating and drinking and laughing with them. But it was true. They had to deal with it. He was no longer dead and buried.
So this is the culmination of the whole experience. He was leaving – finally. But they were to be given power from the Holy Spirit. Just so we, as we learn to experience the fact of our baptism – as we learn to live as Christ’s followers – have to deal with the fact that we are witnesses. We have a role to play and a job to do now, in this age, just as the original apostles did then. We must spread the news – the Good News – the impossible truth, which we hold close in our hearts.
Something to reflect on this coming week.