The feast of Ascension celebrates something that both is and is not a parting. Like many of the major events in the gospels, it contains a paradox. On one level the Ascension is a parting of the risen Jesus, the physical, so as to enable him to be present to them, and to all of us, in a new and truly awesome way.
Some people think of the Ascension as a finale to the greatest show on earth. Jesus has spoken his lines, performed his wonders and played the principal role in the tragic drama of the crucifixion. He has made his audience gasp with the startling brightness of his resurrection and now, with his ascension, he is taking his final bow, except that instead of a curtain, it is a cloud which has swept across and hid him from human sight.
But of course to think like this is to miss the point. Jesus did not go back to heaven in the same way that an actor goes back to the dressing room, leaving the rest of us to make our own way home. Rather, there is a real sense in which we too ascended to heaven with him. For when he ascended he took his human nature with him. This means that a human nature like ours has broken the barrier between earth and heaven.
It is not just a human nature like ours, instead, a human nature representative of ours. And so, in a sense, all human beings ascended with Christ, in promise at least. He died for us, rose for us, ascended for us so that we could ascend with him. In other words, in his ascension he blazed a trail that we can follow and his going up is a guarantee that we will go up too. And this guarantee lasts for all eternity as he says: ‘I am going now to prepare a place for you’ (John 14:2).
Jesus was going somewhere that can only be written of symbolically. First we have the use of the image of the mountain, where so many divine encounters happened in the scriptures, such as when Moses received the commandments and of course the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor.
The language of the Incarnation was of descending but here, to complete the cycle of love, we have an ascending. Christ’s going up signals his triumph over death and the powers of this world. Jesus goes up from the world but at the same time he is not distant from it. Rather, he is now able to be, as God always has been, right at the heart of it.
The disciples could not dwell on the parting from their friend and master. They had to take up their daily lives again – at least until Pentecost – when their lives would be turned around. No longer near the body of Christ, they would become the body of Christ, as we are. And like them, we have the promise that where Christ is now, we will one day follow.