Today we celebrate the Feast of Ascension, transferring it from this past Thursday, which was 40 days after Easter. Ascension to me is a mirror image of Ash Wednesday, which of course is 40 days before Easter (apart from the Sundays). While Ash Wednesday reminds us of the perishable nature of our existence, in Easter, we find the hope of its renewal, and Ascension offers a dynamic image of it being raised up to the heavenly realm.
In our culture, we equate rising with becoming better: think of “raising the bar”, “topping the charts”, graduating “at the top of the class”, feeling like you are “on top of the world”, and even “raising” children. The biblical authors did the exact same thing when they imagined heaven being somewhere above the sky, reported visions of God at the mountain tops, told of Jacob’s ladder and the chariot of fire, used metaphors such as rising up on wings of eagles, and culminating in Jesus rising from the dead; for literally, in Greek, the word for resurrection, “anastasis”, means “standing up again”. And of course, Ascension.
Interestingly enough, the idea that the house of God’s -- and a place he prepares for us to dwell in forever -- is located somewhere above the world of the living is not at all universal; so it seems that our culture has inherited it directly from our ancestors in faith. Why do you think they pictured it this way: that Jesus left this world by going upwards into the sky? Well obviously, he was very much alive, so it didn’t make sense for him to go down into Sheol, the Jewish underground world of the dead; but still, he could have dissolved into thin air, or something like that. I think what it is, is that the rising up typefies breaking free; like a bird or cloud that is seemingly capable of defying the force of gravity which defines our life in the material world.
So, higher equals freer, but does being free mean being closer to God, for most of us? Many people envision religion as a set of rules, something that circumscribes our existence, relationships, and interactions with others - a moral code that is intended to constrain the free spirit, to tame the wild creature within us, which should have no master. This is a misguided and unproductive understanding of our life in God, for our nature will always have a master, in one aspect of the world or another. On the contrary, living and acting, and thinking and relating to each other in the most Christ-like fashion is, in fact, much more freeing than trying to “do it my way”. It might seem limiting, but if we are completely honest with ourselves, the times when we felt most peaceful and joyful are the times when we “give in” to the divine purpose for which we have been created, rather than to the demands and temptations of the world. Oftentimes, we mistake “doing what we want” with trying to match what the rest of the world is doing.
And yet, paradoxically, to rise freely above the world, for Jesus and his followers has never entailed the sense of detachment from the world. One good illustration of this principle are some icons of Ascension, which depict Jesus' feet: in the sky, yet still very much “in the picture”. Or to give you a real-life example, in the last month, one of the news items that distracted us from the coronavirus concerns was the passing and funeral of Prince Phillip. An interesting article popped up in my newsfeed at the time, written by Graham Tomlin, the area bishop for the Diocese of London. In the article, entitled “Prince Philip and the Myth of Stoicism”, the Bishop contrasted the prevailing stereotype of Christianity, as ascribed to the Royal Family, with what the Christian faith is actually like. He observed that while many tributes to Prince Philip had referred to him as the epitome of stoicism on account of his always dignified acceptance of life’s circumstances, a more truthful representation would have been to emphasize that he was, in fact, a follower of Jesus.
Indeed, stoicism is often conflated with Christianity, but Jesus himself would have made a very poor stoic. Stoicism cultivates apatheia, the achievement of freedom from the pain and delights of this world through emotional detachment, whereas Jesus got angry at the temple, cried at the grave of Lazarus, agonized over his impending trial in the garden, and also partied, enjoyed food, and told jokes. According to Bishop Tomlin, the crucial distinction between a stoic and Christian is that “the latter accepts the world as it is. The former wants to see it changed.”
This struck me as a fairly accurate and important distinction. My own understanding of the process of “spiritual ascent”, of getting closer to God, entails none of these three stereotypes ascribed to us, Christians. So no, I am not being oppressed by the rules of religion, nor trying to cultivate a stiff upper lip in the face of life’s challenges, and certainly not feigning the lack of interest in life’s pleasures. And yes, I do want to see the world changed, yet I do recognize that first, all the changes will have to keep happening within me, as the synergy of the Spirit’s work and mine. My hope for our life in Jesus, in this life and in the world to come, is best described by the words found in the Eucharistic prayer for Ascension, which I will say later today: simply, “that where he is, there we might also be, and reign with him in glory.” Thanks be to God.