The Feast of the Ascension

Reflection by Rev. Leonard N. Peterson

Mankind’s first space flight lasted minutes on April 12, 1961. The first man in outer space who took that history-making trip 60 years ago was Russia’s Yuri Gagarin. He believed firmly in the Almighty and was a devout Christian, even though he kept silent about that to his country’s government. What that atheistic government did was promulgate the lie that Yuri had said, “I looked around the cosmos and did not see God.” This lie was matched by a number of others regarding certain aspects of the flight, one of which was that Gagarin landed more than 200 miles away from where they were expecting.

Because the gospels of Mark that we read today, and that of Luke, tell us that Jesus was “taken up into heaven,” we obviously tend to take their description as that of a literal location, a geographical one that heaven is “up” somewhere, as opposed to “down.” Emeric Lawrence, OSB writes that “the very language of this feast obscures its deep and true meaning for us.” That allowed the God-hating Soviet government at the time to make its silly observation, a “cheap shot” if you will, at Christian belief in general.

Yes, we do hear the gospel language and think: He ascended, He went up into a cloud—the biblical symbol of God’s dwelling place—so He is gone from us. But can this be true? Yes it is, if we consider only His original bodily presence. But we believe that already in His resurrection He entered upon a new, completely unprecedented manner of existence. Time and space no longer placed any restrictions upon Him. He simply appeared to His disciples through locked doors; He ate, drank, and conversed with them.

His ascension may well have been an advancement or a perfection of that new existence of His. Now He no longer appears in bodily form. But He has by no means departed from them in His real being as God the Father’s Son. Otherwise how do we explain His words when He said; “And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world”? He is with us, with the Church. It is a real presence, and not just figurative language. It is truth. The ascension is not an end, but a beginning, the beginning of a new manner of Christ’s activity among the apostles and the Church.
Jesus has laid the groundwork by His preaching, His death, and His resurrection. Now the work goes on, and we are a part of it. In spreading the Gospel we are not all called to be missionaries, but each of us can carry on that work by our prayers, by our sufferings offered for the missions and missionaries, and by whatever contributions we can make. Missionaries depend on their fellow Christians to help them carry on their and Christ’s work.

Returning to all the talk about heaven being “up” applied to the Ascension of the Lord, and our real work for Christ here on earth brings up this story. Before leaving for the Holy Land, a church member told his pastor Phillips Brooks, the noted 19th century Episcopal bishop, that he was going to climb to the top of Mount Sinai and read aloud the Ten Commandments. Thinking this would please Dr. Brooks, the church member was surprised to hear his pastor say, “You know, I can think of something even better that that.” “You can?” the man responded. “And what might that be?” Brooks replied, “Just this. Instead of traveling thousands of miles to read the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, why not stay right here at home and obey them?”

God love you and give you His peace!