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On May 21 this year, a tweet or a blog post (I don’t remember which) reminded me that it was Ascension Day, the traditional celebration of the day that Jesus, following his crucifixion and resurrection, returned to heaven. The most detailed of the biblical accounts (Acts 1:1-12) says that “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” (Acts 1:9, NIV)
Naturally, many scholars (and average believers) now question whether this is what literally happened. For me, the reminder about Ascension day led me to ask what Ascension Day means to me, regardless of its factual status.
I had trouble with this idea at first. I read over the various accounts of the Ascension, along with traditional Christian teachings and creedal statements, and discovered that most of it meant nothing to me! The Incarnation is important to me; that Jesus lived as a human among humans. His death is meaningful to me (see previous post). The Resurrection tells me that Jesus is still with us; that he defeated death, and it did not separate him from us.
In contrast, the Ascension does seem to separate Jesus from us. “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right and of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” (The Nicene Creed) He left us, returned to heaven, and someday he’ll be back. He’s not with us any more.
But wait! Jesus also said “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20, NIV) And that’s been my experience — that he is with us and accessible, not separated from us until some future glorious event.
So how can a believing follower of Jesus reconcile this with the Ascension?
Strangely enough, there is a traditional belief that helps. It’s more common in the Eastern Orthodox church, according to Wikipedia (although sadly I can’t find a source that clearly verifies this). Jesus’ ascension “consummated the union of God and man.” Or, as Grace of Kingdom Grace puts it, “Because of the bodily ascension of Christ, we are now lifted into and included in the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit.”
Rather than a separation, the Ascension represents a joining of God and humans. Once again, it says that God is with us, now and always, Emanuel.