Today, on the Church calendar, is Ascension Day. Forty days after the resurrection, according to the tradition in Acts, Jesus is taken up to the right hand of God. Let me set the scene. Jesus has just promised his disciples that they would be empowered by the Spirit to live out their calling, to be his witnesses, sharing the radical message of the Kingdom of God everywhere they would go. Following this, the text records this scene:
Acts 1:9-11, CEB:
After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?
Of course, this scene is hard to imagine for us. We no longer hold to a three-tiered-universe understanding of reality. The idea of Jesus going “up, up, and away” seems hard to swallow. Yet, I want to invite you to think about this story theologically. For the author, there’s something going on in this scene that will shape the story he’s telling, which in Acts is about the spread of this Jesus movement from a ragtag, small group of followers, to reaching the heart of the empire itself, Rome. To think theologically means to ask, what is the deeper truth, the more-than-literal meaning of this story. Another way to put it is this: Believe whatever you want about whether or not this story is giving us a literal picture of Jesus going up in the sky. The question we must ask is, either way, what does it mean?
Here are a couple of thoughts on what this story might mean.
First, Jesus is ascending to the right hand of God. This is a reference, I think, to two different things, one Roman, one Jewish, that come together to make one important affirmation. Let’s begin with Rome.
A few months after Julius Caesar was assassinated, his adopted son (and heir) Octavian (better known as Caesar Augustus) held games in his honor. During the festival a comet appeared in the sky for seven days, which was said to be the soul of Julius Caesar ascending to the realm of the gods. This was fortunate for Augustus. If his adopted father, Julius, was now among the gods, then he was the son of a god, and thus could be described as ‘lord.’ Lord in Greek is kurios, and refers essentially to who is in charge. Who has the say over how things are? In the Roman empire, the answer at the time of Jesus’ birth was Caesar Augustus, the son of god and lord.
Next, let’s consider the Jewish tradition. In the book of Daniel, which is an apocalyptic Jewish text from the period of Hellenistic rule of Palestine (written c. 160s BCE), there is a description of four empires, symbolized by beasts. Each of these empires fades into history, ultimately replaced by the next. After the fourth beastly empire, the author records a vision in which a human being joins God and is given power to rule:
Daniel 7:13-14 CEB
As I continued to watch this night vision of mine, I suddenly saw one like a human being coming with the heavenly clouds. He came to the ancient one and was presented before him. Rule, glory, and kingship were given to him; all peoples, nations, and languages will serve him. His rule is an everlasting one—it will never pass away!—his kingship is indestructible.
The scene is essentially saying this: The kingdoms that came before act in a beastly fashion, establishing rule through the use of violence and social and economic inequality. The truly just kingdom, the Kingdom of God, would be humane, led by a Human One, or as it would have been said then, a Son of Man. The writer of Acts clearly had this text in mind when he wrote about Jesus ascending in the clouds.
To bring these two ideas together, the Ascension means that Jesus is greater than Caesar. He has ascended to the right hand of the true God, and rules over creation, as the author of Daniel envisioned. To put it concisely: the Ascension means that Jesus is Lord.
Second, notice the response of the disciples: they stare into the heavens, watching Jesus disappear. Suddenly, two men in white appear (because it was before Labor Day and wearing all white was permissible), and ask them why they are gazing into the sky. The point isn’t to look into the sky, watching for Jesus. The point is to go and share this remarkable story of a Kingdom of justice and generosity, to be witnesses to the transformation they have experienced through their encounter with this Jesus.
Ten days later, on Pentecost Day, these first followers of Jesus would gather together and be filled with the Spirit. This was the empowerment of which Jesus spoke. These followers would no longer be content to watch the sky; instead, they would give everything, even their own lives, to advance this alternative kingdom, the Kingdom of God.
What does the Ascension mean?
It calls us to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.
Which means Caesar isn’t.
It also calls us to engage, to participate in the work of God, the work of healing, justice, reconciliation, and transformation, right here and right now.
The reality is that Jesus isn’t gone. He’s here. He’s always been here. We are the body in which he incarnates. We are, as Teresa of Avila beautifully wrote, the hands and feet, the eyes with which he looks upon the world with compassion.
The Ascension isn’t about absence. It’s about an even more intimate presence. Our response, then, isn’t to stand gazing into the sky. Our response is to love, to give, to extend compassion and forgiveness. Our response, our calling, is to be the Body of Christ in, to, with, and for the world.