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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

When the Son of God enters the Sun

Those of you who read the Sun would have been given a helpful lesson in theology in yesterday’s edition under the headline HEAVENLY DAY What is Ascension Day? As it happens it’s a question that many church members ask.

We’re given a useful tabloid description of this key Christian festival. “Ascension Day commemorates the moment Jesus ascended into heaven in front of his disciples.” That’s as good as any.

But what does this mean?

For many church members, certainly in our country, Ascension Day lacks any significance. It doesn’t help that this celebration, seen by John Calvin as the “Queen of all festivals,” always falls on a Thursday, ecclesiastical off-peak. From my experience (including last night) congregations are always disappointingly small.

So the Sun goes to one of our leading theologians for guidance. In fact, the very same person who with one of our daughters travelled around London in a black cab during the Coronation with a crew from the France2 television channel. But that’s another story.

This is Reverend Prebendary Dr Isabelle Hamley, theological adviser to the Church of England, and as you would expect her input was spot on.

So to quote the Sun (it’s not often that I use that particular phrase) ''Ascension Day is the day we remember Jesus finally leaving earth and being taken up to heaven, yet promising to be with his disciples always.

''It is a step change for the new, budding church, as they learn to live out their faith in a different way.

“Jesus is taken up to heaven, the scars of crucifixion still marking his hands.

"In the Ascension, the whole of human experience, pain and trauma is taken up into heaven, and held by a God of love who promises to care for the people of earth.”

And as a theological summary that’s all you need to know, and I could end this blog now. But given that I have yet to reach the halfway point, there’s another 500 words to write. So I’d better keep typing.

I’ve always found the Ascension of Jesus a bit of a mystery, very strange. Does the risen Jesus actually go up to about 6500 feet to cloud level where he disappears?

This is the point Tom Wright makes in his commentary. “Some churches have pictures of the ascension in stained-glass windows. Often they show the disciples looking up into the sky, and two feet hanging down from a cloud. It looks like a circus stunt. No wonder people find it hard to believe either that it really happened or that it means anything very much.”

Certainly the language the evangelist uses has a clear Old Testament resonance: for example, clouds representing the shekinah of God’s glory. So as the people of Israel travelled through the wilderness en route to their promised land: “By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud.” (Exodus 13:21)

And up? Again a metaphor we often use for people going up in the world. Here Luke is writing more in poetry than in prose.

We’re talking about mystery and about the very nature of reality. That’s why I find modern scientific cosmology so fascinating. Reality is not what it seems. In fact, what we think of reality is a mere 4% of what is actually there, the other 96% being dark matter, altogether invisible to our senses.

If you don’t understand that, don’t worry: no one does. What you need to understand is that we don’t understand!

Not that the Bible is a scientific textbook but it too has a different understanding of reality.

As Wright writes (and he’s right): “Heaven and earth overlap and interlock. They go together. They are meant for each other.” He adds: “They are two different dimensions of God's good creation.”

I’ve always been helped in understanding Jesus’ ascension by the Good News translation of Ephesians 4:10: “So the one who came down is the same one who went up, above and beyond the heavens, to fill the whole universe with his presence."

Now the point is, and you may not be able to follow this, Wright explains: “The one who is in heaven can be present simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth: the ascension therefore means that Jesus is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on the earth to find him.”

This understanding makes all the difference as we seek to follow Jesus. He is, as promised, our Emmanuel, God with us. And he is with us wherever we happen to be; in him heaven and earth interlock.

And more, this Jesus is Lord of all, “seated at the right hand of God.” (Colossians 3:1). Here again the New Testament uses figurative language to demonstrate his total authority over everything in the created order, even now, today.

The ascension of Jesus is front page Good News. For as Canadian pastor Erwin Lutzer observes: “Christ didn’t merely enter heaven but strode into it as its rightful owner and heir.” He is Lord of all. Alleluia!

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