Acts 1:1-11, Eph 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53 (with a shoutout to Matthew 28:16-17)
St. Augustine of Hippo said, “If you believe what you like in the gospel and reject what you don’t like, it’s not the gospel you believe but yourself.”
When I hear Augustine’s words I can’t help but think of Jesus’ Ascension. The Ascension is the embarrassing event. The hard to believe event. The event most Christians would rather just avoid thinking about. Ask us about the incarnation and without blinking we say, “God did something amazing.” Ask of the resurrection and we think, “500 people at one time saw Jesus and people don’t have group hallucinations.” But bring up the Ascension…A group of guys standing around 40 days later watching Jesus’ feet disappear into heaven. Its’ …awkward, Ok.
A variety of scholars will tell you that the ancient world had numerous “ascensions.” Rome had Romulus and Augustus, The Greeks, Hercules. In the Bible, Genesis has Enoch whose story ends with “and God took him,” and in 2 Kings 2 Elijah disappears in a whirlwind. But, no matter how many reports may have been out there, the New Testament witnesses don’t seem any more comfortable with the Ascension than we are. They tell the story with as little elaboration as possible, and with more than a hint of confusion. In the description in Acts 1, two men in white appear and ask them, “why are you standing around looking into heaven in the middle of a workday?” It’s a wonder they didn’t respond, “Are you kidding? Our friend, who we watched them kill stone cold dead, has been hanging out with us for more than a month telling us he would ascend to the Father. And. He. Just. Did. So excuse us, if even though he told us what he was going to do, we just can’t stop looking.”
In the book of Acts we find out the disciples did what one would assume they would do when God does something beyond explanation: They worshipped. We Christians still worship on Ascension Day. The church in Jerusalem has gathered on this day on the Mount of Olives from at least the late 300s. A simple chapel with a hole in the roof sits over a rock tradition says is the place from which Jesus left. You can stand there and look up and see the sky.
Unlike many of the commemorative sites in the Holy Land, this one is thoroughly unimpressive. The impressive part is long gone…seated at the right hand of the Father. As Paul said in Ephesians: “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”
“How” Jesus did it is a mystery. What it must have looked like to the witnesses is as well. In the East they taught the faith with icons rather than stained glass. In iconography there is an artistic technique called a mandorla, the Italian word for almond. A mandorla is an almond, or round or starburst looking shape around Jesus that generally gets darker as you get closer to Him. It indicates a mystery beyond mere seeing. You see mandorla’s in the transfiguration, the resurrection, and the ascension. A mandorla is sort of a visual parenthesis that says, “What is happening, we saw it, but we don’t understand it…it’s a mystery.” They may have been witnesses, but they couldn’t really describe it – and painters can’t really paint it.
In the West we have all sorts of representations of the Ascension from ceramic feet disappearing through church ceilings, to Dali’s painting of the ascension that has Jesus disappearing into what looks like the atomic structure of the universe. Is it any wonder in Matthew 28:16 and 17 we read, “Now the eleven disciples went…to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted.” If eyewitness were enough, you might have the inability to capture the image, but there wouldn’t be doubt.
Instead, the scripture points us towards mystery in our relationship with the risen Christ. We know Him and perceive Him, not through a set of coherent intellectual propositions, or even trust in the reliability of eyewitnesses. A “faith” founded on propositions alone, no matter how sound the argument, still fails to change the one who accepts it. That sort of faith is just opinion.
True faith is union with God, participation in the life of the risen Christ. We are not baptized into observations or opinions, we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the language of icons, our life is plunged into the mandorla that is the Kingdom of God. God calls his people into that parenthetical state where our lives constantly refer and point to a new reality, a reality which has filled us…a quality of life that transcending opinion, is nothing less than union with God, a union that itself witnesses to the coming Kingdom.
More than mere eyewitness observation…more than persuasive propositional truth…OUR walk with the resurrected and ascended Jesus Christ is what affirms the living truth of Christ. To quote St. Paul, you can be one with God because “God placed all things under His feet.” Because Jesus has ascended, “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.” Because Jesus has ascended, “you may know…the hope to which he has called you.” Because Jesus is ascended, available is “his incomparably great power for us who believe. Because he is ascended, to you, his body, are the riches of his glorious inheritance.”
If you believe what you like in the gospel and reject what you don’t, it’s not the gospel you believe but yourself. But if you dare believe the Gospel, if you cling, even to the “crazy stuff”…if you have faith, not as spectator or as “opinion” holder, but faith as participation with Jesus, as union with God, then you find, not only a confidence unavailable for those who trust in themselves, but that your life becomes the irrefutable evidence of “the fullness of Him who fills all in all.“