The Ascension of Christ

Today is a special day on the church calendar. Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus to the “right hand of the Father” in heaven. Christ’s ascension is closely related to his resurrection and together they serve as a decisive, earth-shaking and history-making event that has transformed reality. It points forward with eschatological hope, and demands that we live as if heaven is already on earth (i.e. “on earth as it is in heaven”). We often talk about the resurrection. And Pentecost (the outpouring of the Holy Spirit) gets some of its own attention. But we tend to ignore the ascension of Christ.

Luke 24:44-53 says,

Then he said to 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.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them 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. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Jesus’ being “carried up into heaven” has to be taken as a true “withdrawal.” Jesus in John alludes to his “leaving” the disciples quite overtly. In John 20, when Mary is clinging to the resurrected Jesus with tears of joy in her eyes, Jesus says to her, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” I have always found this to be somewhat harsh. I mean, here this woman had seen Jesus die, knew he was dead, and now, miraculously, he is standing before her. Of course she’s going to hold on to him. But Jesus emphasizes a point here. He is emphasizing the importance of his “withdrawal” from earth to heaven, his ascension.

So what is the importance of the ascension of Christ?

The ascension of Christ is important because in going to the “place” of God (i.e. heaven, at the right hand of the Father), Jesus effuses “the ‘ubiquity’ of the (‘ascended’) body of Christ.” According to the theologian, Otto Weber, “God’s space ‘makes space’ for all things created.” Heaven, in other words, is not “above” or “out there.” Heaven is the space that creates space for the created world. God’s place, as heaven, is here and now, pervading all life and being. Because Christ is in heaven, the world now exists in Christ and is not cut off from Christ. So Christ’s “ascension” is not only a withdrawal from the world, but it is also an expansion of his ‘being with’ the world (yes, this is paradoxical, so it’s ok if your brain aches a little here).

As Weber puts it,

“We will have to say that Jesus Christ is departed from us in the unity and totality of his being, that we do in fact have to wait upon him (Phil 3:20) and do not have him at our disposal—which the Reformers never tired of emphasizing. However, this Jesus Christ, who is in the glory of the Father, enthroned at the ‘place’ of the divine ‘majesty,’ and who is beyond our control and totally beyond it, is totally present for us….. He is here in the reality which can only be known in anticipation.”

By ascending to the right hand of the Father in heaven—by being “carried up into heaven”—Jesus joins the Father’s omnipresence and thus becomes truly present with us, especially in the Holy Spirit, but completely beyond our control. As one who dwells in heaven, Jesus is not “at our disposal” and still lives beyond us. Therefore, we must still rely upon Christ and abide in Christ, awaiting the coming of Christ’s “direct reality which God’s presence bears within itself” (Weber again). Because Christ is “there” in heaven, present to us “here” in anticipation, there is still a “not yet” even within the “now” of God’s presence. The resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost (which is coming soon) should be held together in a logical unity. Christ has risen to bring new reality, Christ ascended to heaven to share in God’s ubiquity so that we can anticipate his coming again to bring God’s kingdom to bear upon the whole world, and Christ comes to us in power through the Holy Spirit to move through us in ministry to bring heaven to earth.

Because of the ascension of Christ, the Holy Spirit (which is the Spirit of Christ) is here. In Christ “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And yet, we also wait for the coming of Christ to be “all in all” and to make all things new. We live in Christ now and until he comes again. If Christ were not seated with the Father in heaven, the church could not be the “body of Christ” (Ephesians 1:23). So ascension day is a big deal—a far bigger deal than we’ve made it. So may it be a big deal in your life today as you reflect on the promise of Christ’s presence with in in the “place” of God which envelopes and transcends the world.

[all the quotes of Otto Weber are from his book, Foundation of Dogmatics, Vol. 1 (Eerdmans, 1981), pages 454-455.]