In ancient times, people tended to think of the universe as though it had three stories. (Some people still do.) We might imagine a three-story house. The heavens were the top story, maybe the attic; our world was the first floor, and as for the underworld, as the name suggests, it’s down there below the surface. It would be the basement.
Yesterday was the feast of the Ascension of the Lord. Sunday (besides being the Seventh Sunday of Easter) is Ascension Sunday. So what’s the deal with Ascension, anyway? (In addition to being “uplifting”!)
Today we wouldn’t describe the Ascension of the Lord as someone floating up into the sky. We no longer perceive the cosmos in the “three story” way, as did the ancients. We don’t see ourselves the same way. We are, after all, mostly empty space. At the atomic level, there are electrons spinning around the nucleus, like tiny solar systems. Smaller and smaller particles are being discovered. A few years ago, evidence of the speculative Higgs Boson particle was detected.
Ascension of Christ by Eric Cunningham
Going in the other direction, by using ever more powerful telescopes, we’re gazing deeper, toward the edge of the universe itself. We’re looking at light that has taken billions of years to arrive at Earth. (It appears we have a new “three story” image: macrocosmic, mesocosmic, and microcosmic!)
In his gospel, here’s how St. Luke describes the ascension of Jesus: “Then he led [the disciples] out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (24:50-51). “Carried up into heaven.” How can we picture that?
Here’s a picture Nazarene professor Andy Johnson paints: “our very flesh is constantly interchanging elements with the rest of the material universe.” There’s that subatomic particle stuff! At that level of reality, it’s hard to draw a line between “us” (our bodies) and “not-us.” Thinking about that theologically, with God’s raising the body of Jesus, “the redemption of the cosmos as a whole has begun.”
Because of the Ascension of the Lord, Jesus as the Christ is everywhere. What that means is there are no “God-free” zones. Nothing is truly godforsaken.
Why is the Ascension of the Lord so important? Why must Jesus depart? Why does Jesus say, in effect, “It’s time for me to fly!”?
It can be difficult to understand. Earlier in Luke 24, two disciples on the road to Emmaus are downcast; they’re crestfallen. Jesus comes up and speaks with them, though they don’t recognize him. They say, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (v. 21). But notice what happens. “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v. 27).
Later, when he appears to the gathered group of disciples, he tells them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (v. 44).
Our friend Andy points out, “the Old Testament never directly says that the Messiah will suffer, die, or be raised from the dead.” That’s true, and that’s why Jesus was such a problem, even for well-meaning people. The disciples need to understand. So Jesus repeats what he did on the road to Emmaus. For the disciples who think they’re seeing a ghost, “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (v. 45).
Johnson says, “Jesus begins reshaping their imagination, reshaping the categories they had used to make sense of what God was doing in their world.” Their culture has shaped them to think in a certain way. Then here comes Jesus, completely turning that stuff on its head!
There can be a difference between translating and interpreting. When we translate, we go from one language to another. For example, we take the English word “dog” and go to the Spanish word “perro,” or to the Turkish word “köpek.” However, when we interpret, we assign meaning, and sometimes that meaning can be quite different from what we expect, or want, to hear!
For the disciples to understand who Jesus is, it will mean “reinterpreting the entire biblical narrative, ‘all the scriptures.’” Jesus knows what he has to do. He has to open their minds. He has to blow their minds. He has to rock their world!
The disciples have their vision radically expanded, re-imagined. They must learn “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (v. 47). The old categories no longer work. They can’t presume to “have” or “own” Jesus.
Is it our job to push the boundaries, even as it dawns on us that the ascended Christ is everywhere? Do we understand that we are interwoven with everything around us? Do we see ourselves as “carried up into heaven,” if only in part? What does that call us to do? Or better, who does that call us to be?
 Andy Johnson, “Our God Reigns: The Body of the Risen Lord in Luke 24,” Word and World 22:2 (Spring 2002) 141.
 Johnson, 136.
 Johnson, 136.