In the words of one of the Church Fathers, Leo the Great,
“The subject of our present gladness is Christ’s Ascension, as we commemorate and duly venerate that day on which the Nature of our humility in Christ was raised above all the host of heaven, over all the ranks of angels, beyond the height of all powers, to sit with God the Father.”
The nature of our humility - in Christ - was raised beyond the height of all powers. This is the theme of the Feast of Ascension, which we celebrated 40 days after Easter - a mirror image to the beginning of Lent. Ash Wednesday reminds us of the perishable nature of our existence. In Easter, we find the hope of its rebirth and renewal. And, Ascension offers a dynamic image of it being raised up to the heavenly realm. These concepts are captured in the powerful narrative of the life of Christ.
Written two millennia ago, the gospels rely on many of the same cognitive constructs out of which we still operate today. I always find it interesting to ponder whether we have inherited these symbols from the Bible or from the cultures that influenced its writers, or if they are universally recognized - by the first evangelists, and by people of all times and around the world.
For example, as I reflect on the imagery of Ascension, I am struck by the equivalence of the concept of “moving upwards” and “being of a greater value”, as reflected even by our language. Greater achievements are said to be at the “top”: from top marks/scores, to songs “topping the charts”, to matters of higher priority being at the top of our to-do lists, etc. We never cease to strive to elevate ourselves, climb up career ladders, to be fascinated by higher society, rise above the mediocre, be “above such matters”, and even “raise” or “bring up” our children. Conversely, self-abasement is wrong; so is “putting someone down”. We are never to “lower our standards”; or “sink into” whatever is despised. Even such neutral, natural phenomenon as the perception of the sun to “rise” over the horizon is associated with goodness; whereas its perceived descent is thought to encourage evil.
The biblical writers have thought and spoken in similar terms, equating being physically higher up with being in the presence of God -- being holy, and made whole/well. The Old Testament offers many instances that, essentially, prefigure Christ’s ascent into heaven: from seeing visions of God at the mountain tops, to Jacob’s ladder, the chariot of fire ascending into the sky above Jordan, rising up on wings of eagles… Building on these, the New Testament writers, too, imagined that God’s abode is located somewhere “above” the earth; the Ascension of Jesus, of course being one such reference, and the descent of the Holy Spirit - another. Jesus is said to have risen from the dead; literally, in the Greek word “anastasis” used by the evangelists, he is said to “have stood up again”. The Church Fathers picked up on this imagery and used it in the classical works, such as “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”.
So today, when we think about heaven (the subject about which the Bible is actually rather vague), we think of it, first, as being “somewhere high up”; second, as the place where to spend eternity; and third, as God’s and angels’ home. This understanding has not, in fact, been fully developed until the Middle Ages, nor is it a universal concept. Many of the world’s cultures, especially those that predated and influenced Christianity, imagined life after death to take place under the earth, rather than above it.
The ancient Hebrews knew that God lived in a tabernacle right in their midst (not somewhere in the sky), and yet after death they expected to arrive in the underworld, which they called Sheol. Sheol carried no connotation of judgement, and has likely been influenced by the Mesopotamians’ subterranean “great city” (Sumerian "irigal"), protected by seven walls and gates - a shadowy, dulled version of life on earth that lay underground; neither a place of great misery nor joy, neither punishment nor reward. Similarly, ancient Greeks thought that the spirits of the dead lived in the shadowy Hades - a place for both the righteous and the morally weak, where they dwelt separately in Elyseum or Tartarus, respectively. The Egyptians thought that The Field of Reeds for the souls of those morally deserving was a mirror image of the earth, complete with one’s home, favorite people, animals, and possessions. Even across the world from the Medirranean area, various Polynesian societies also presumed that the ghosts dwelt in the underworld, while the Hawaiians believed they remained in the land of the living, guarding their families. In the Mayan culture, children were lowered into the wells to bring them closer to their gods’ dwellings and hear their messages more clearly.
It appears that our Christian/modern/Western belief regarding our souls rising up to heaven after death in order to be with God is not something we inherited from the cultures that influenced us. Rather, it is a special image that the first evangelists passed down to us. Evidently, it captured our imagination, and appealed to the deep-seated desire of each human to soar above the reality - to break free. But do we also misunderstand and warp the notion of the divine Ascent? How many of us have been taught to always strive to move upwards, to work hard so we can do “anything”, to jump high enough so that we can fly. But, paradoxically, it is the desire to climb the heights of this world that chains us down by our feet. Conversely, Jesus’ ascension actually does bring us higher - not according to any ranking system of this world, but closer to God.
However, if ascending with Jesus does not mean topping the charts here on earth, then does it require us to become disconnected and detached from this world? Many world’s philosophies have proposed this, but the way of Jesus’ is more complex. His final words to those gathered to witness his departure are a benediction; a prayer of protection and blessing that rings similarly to the original meaning of the word “goodbye” - “God be with you”. Yes, Ascension is a goodbye; but deep authentic relationships, such as those which bound Jesus to his friends, and which bind us to God and to our loved ones, are not limited by time and place. We’ve certainly learned this much over the time of physical distancing and isolation, haven’t we? To whom and to what have you had to say goodbye over the last two months? What goodbyes are you facing soon? How do you tend to cope with goodbyes? These questions are worth pondering in these times of uncertainty and, possibly, grief we are going through.
To conclude, let me leave you with one final image. Some traditional icons of Ascension do not show the full body of Jesus rising into the sky, but only his feet. What does that say to you? Is it a hint regarding Jesus’ ever-lingering presence that never fully goes away? Or maybe, it is a reflection of our desire to hang on to the visible signs of faith and tangible evidence of God’s activity. Or, it could be a reminder that, in the words of St Teresa of Avila, “our feet are to become his feet” (as well as our hands - his hands), thereby fulfilling Jesus’ farewell benediction and ensuring that his Kingdom comes -- on earth, as it is in heaven. Thanks be to God.