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by Thomas A. Boogaart
I do not remember Ascension Day ever being celebrated when I was a boy growing up in a Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I do not remember the Ascension itself ever being the subject of a sermon. In my church, we celebrated Jesus’ birth–elaborate pageants complete with shepherds, wise men, and angels. We delighted in his ministry–the intriguing parables, the miraculous healings, and the bickering with the Pharisees. We mourned his suffering and death–the crown of thorns and the agony of Gethsemane. We rejoiced in his resurrection–enthusiastically singing songs like “Low in the grave he lay…up from the grave he arose.” Yet Jesus’ Ascension never captured our imagination. It seemed to me at the time, and apparently to others as well, an odd story, less believable than the other stories of Jesus’ life, and less charged with signifi cance. Luke writes in the Acts of the Apostles: “When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” A story like this seemed more at home in exotic and pagan places like India where levitating was a sign of a guru’s enlightenment and spiritual power.
I cannot say that matters have changed much since I was a boy. For the past twenty years I have had the privilege of teaching the Old Testament to students at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. They are typically the children of faith communities throughout the United States and Canada, and the Ascension has not captured their imagination and plays little role in their understanding and practice of faith. The more I think about this state of affairs, the more peculiar and intriguing it is to me. For I have come to understand the Ascension to be not only central to understanding the witness of both the Old and New Testaments but central to revitalizing faith communities in the Western world today.
The Witness of Scripture
I will begin with the first assertion: the Ascension is central to understanding the witness of Scripture. The Apostles’ Creed affirms: “he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” We need to pause over this reference to “the right hand of the Father.” The Scriptures consistently depict God dwelling in a house or palace, complete with a throne room, a banquet room, and even a garden. Jesus ascends to this house and takes his seat. Jesus’ Ascension is, in effect, his coronation. From his seat at the right hand of God, Jesus rules, prepares a place for us, prepares a feast for us, and intercedes for us.
Before Jesus ascended, however, he descended. He did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself (Philippians 2). Jesus became a human being. Like us, he felt joy and was acquainted with grief. Therefore, the one seated at the right hand of the Father is uniquely qualified to understand us, to care for us, and to listen to our petitions. The great mystery and offense of our faith is the affirmation that the crucified one is Lord. The one who ascended is the same one who first descended; the one who is lifted up was first brought low; the one who has been glorified was first humbled.
In his descending and ascending, Jesus attests to a central truth about the structure of the created order and about moral living with it. If that sounds abstract and complicated, it is really quite concrete and simple. It comes down to this, Jesus in his life attests to the existence of a road between heaven and earth, a connection between the invisible world and the visible world, between things eternal and things passing away. This road is not an overgrown, country road; it is well traveled. This road knows the wear and tear of comings and goings. Jesus himself was no onetime traveler. As the angels proclaimed: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
The People of Israel
The people of Israel were travelers on this road. They built a tabernacle and a temple to be the visible image on earth of the invisible house in heaven. When they ascended to the temple, they hoped and prayed that the visible and invisible house would be one, and that they would be coming into the presence of the Lord. This hope was captured powerfully in the vision of the end times in Isaiah chapter two. This vision is the most concise and profound expression of the people of Israel’s view of God and the world in the Old Testament. It is the DNA, as it were, of the body of Scripture. And it is all about the road between heaven and earth.
Isaiah sees, as later John would see, the house of earth and the house of heaven coming together. He writes, “In days to come, the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills.” The house on earth with all its peculiar vulnerabilities and imperfections will be raised up. It will be glorified, like we hope our bodies will be glorified in the latter days. This raised house will be visible to the ends of the earth, and all peoples of the earth will come and ascend.
The vision of Isaiah tells us that the Lord created the world for worship. The structure of creation and the structure of the liturgy are the same: approach to God, word of God, and response to God. For all of human history, worship has been imperfect, and its imperfections have led to the many unhappy divisions among people and to the devising of weapons of mass destruction. But at the end of human history, worship will be perfected. God has created the world with a road between heaven and earth, and people will finally find it. They will ascend on this road to the house of the Lord; there they will hear the Lord’s words and judgment; they will descend on this same road transformed. The way to God is the way of God.
Isaiah 2 is one text that speaks powerfully of the people of Israel’s desire to ascend to the house of God. Psalm 23 is another, and it brings out another aspect of what happens once pilgrims reach the house of God; namely, banqueting. We are so familiar with this psalm and so captivated by its shepherd imagery that we often lose sight of its larger meaning and function in Israelite life. It is about the road leading to the house of God. Notice the language of movement in the psalm:
He leads me beside still water.
He leads me in right paths.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil.
The shepherd and the fl ock are on the move. After lying down in green pastures for the night, the fl ock gets up again. The sheep are on their way to the house of the Lord, where they anticipate a great feast. Psalm 23 is a song that pilgrims sang on their way to the temple in Jerusalem as they anticipated the great table that awaited them. The psalm ends:
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
Notice the phrase, “you prepare a table before me.” The Lord does not call the catering service for this meal; the Lord himself prepares the food. And so also the phrase, “you anoint my head with oil”: the Lord personally honors his guests by anointing them with scented oil. The psalmist pictures the Lord as the host and the Lord as the model of hospitality. Notice too the phrase, “in the presence of my enemies.” If we hold the image of Isaiah 2 in mind, where all the peoples and nations ascend together to the house of God, we realize that our traditional enemies are included, not excluded. Our particular way of dividing the nations is not necessarily God’s way of dividing them. Perhaps we need to learn to love our enemies on earth because we will be eating with them in heaven.
Angels were travelers on this road. God’s house was filled with angels–sometimes referred to as sons of God, messengers, hosts of heaven, or heavenly beings. Angels are largely ignored today by Christians, despite the continuing fascination with them in the culture at large. We tend to see them in the biblical accounts as vestiges of a worldview that we have long ago left behind. This is unfortunate, for the biblical account of angels is a sophisticated attempt by the people of the Scriptures to understand power, not unlike the attempt of physicists today to understand it. The people of Israel were fascinated by the lifegiving power of God; in other words, they pondered how God created and sustained the world. They understood power to be mysterious and multiform. There was power in the wind, water, and lightening; there was power in the growth of a tree and a child; there was power in the words of both royalty and commoners; there was a power that drew objects to the ground. The list could continue. They were convinced of at least two things: that all power came from God, and that, coming from God, power was personal in some way.
To explain how power came from God and how power was personal in nature, they drew an analogy to how power was manifested in the royal courts of their day. They said essentially this: As sovereigns hold council, so God holds council. As they gather together their advisors, so God gathers advisors. As they deliberate over the affairs of the kingdom, so God deliberates. As their word is the power that holds the kingdom together, so God’s word is the power that holds the world together. As they send messengers to announce their words, so God sends messengers.
Angels are the advisors and messengers of God. They carry the words that hold the world together. They are frequent travelers on the road between heaven and earth. All this is seen most clearly in the account of Jacob’s vision of the ladder. The account begins this way: “Jacob left Beersheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.”At this point, Jacob is cut off from every possible source of life. He is in darkness, prone, alone, and exposed. Yet things are not as they appear to be. Jacob has a dream. ” And he dreamed that there was a ladder/stairway set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And God stood above it.” Jacob is dreaming; he is in an altered state of consciousness. But this state is not taking him away from reality in some phantasmagoric revelry; it is taking him deeper into reality, opening to him realms not often seen. He has happened upon what Celtic Christians would have called a thin place, and he sees though the veil to a world beyond.
Jacob sees the well-traveled road between heaven and earth. Angels ascending and descending are the invisible infrastructure of reality. Jacob sees what a host of people with their microscopes and telescopes are yearning to see: the deep structures, the inner workings of reality, the unfolding of the cosmos. Jacob’s vision is not unlike the vision set before us by the physicists of today. They see a fl aring forth. They the procession of the elements from nutrinos, quarks, leptons, protons, electrons, neutrons, helium, lithium, stars producing more complex elements; galaxies all expanding and then finally collapsing into the glorious (kabod) singularity that is God.
Jacob has a dream of God’s profound presence and care for the world. God punctuates the vision of his presence with these words: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” He is not in darkness, prone, alone, and exposed. God is with him at a depth he could not before imagine.
Various understandings of the prophets prevail in religious circles today. To those influenced by the popular Left Behind novels of LaHaye and Jenkins, the prophets are predictors of a future cataclysm and rapture; to those influenced by the writing of Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuler, they are set aside as negative thinkers; to others influenced by the activism of the sixties, they are critics of economic injustice; to still others influenced by spiritism, they are channels to the divine. All these are caricatures of the prophets, and their prevalence indicates the need to set out more carefully a biblical understanding of the prophets.
The prophets were travelers on the road between heaven and earth. Like the angels, they deliberated with God and carried the words that held the world together. First they ascended to the throne room and pleaded the people’s case before God in the words of the laments, many of them now collected in the Psalms. Second, they descended and pleaded God’s case before the people in the words of indictments now collected in the books of the prophets.
As many sections of Scripture make clear, the prophets were intercessors between the people and God. Along with the angels, they played an essential role in the Lord’s governance of the world. God spoke the words that created the world, and God continued to speak the words that sustained the world. God’s “Let there be…” in Genesis 1 is carried on in the prophet’s “Thus says the Lord…”.
Paul traveled the road between heaven and earth and he spent the rest of his life working out the theological significance of his own ascension. We read about this in Acts 8:3-6, “Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying: ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.'” Paul refers to his ascension indirectly in II Corinthians 12:2-5, “I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows–was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”
Like many prophets before him, Paul had the experience of ascending into the divine council. There he had a conversation with Jesus and was sent on his mission. This experience and this conversation were the stimuli for his subsequent theological refl ection, especially his refl ection on the presence of Christ and on adoption.
First, the presence of Christ. Saul’s question upon entering into the presence Jesus was: “Who are you, Lord?” The answer was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” This answer collapses the distinction between heaven and earth in the same way the theophany itself had. Jesus is both in heaven and on earth. To persecute the followers of Jesus is to persecute Jesus himself. Saul learns from the mouth of Jesus that he and his followers are one. These words of Jesus led to the repeated attempts of Paul to explain the mystery of Christ’s presence in his believers and the significance of this for them and the world. For example, he wrote to the Corinthians: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (II Corinthians 5:17). And to the Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:27-29).
This last quotation from the letter to the Galatians touches on a second theme that Paul drew from his Damascus road experience: adoption. Paul ascended into the house of God; he temporarily joined the rank of angels or sons of God. If we allow the picture of the house of God to guide our thinking, we realize that in the mind of Paul and in the mind of his fellow Jewish and Christian believers Ascension is adoption. Paul had a foretaste of a glorified body and what it meant to be a member of the household of God. He knew in his very being the hospitality of God; he had walked through the door of heaven that Jesus had opened for him. He knew from personal experience that those who were in Christ would be raised with Christ. Therefore Paul could write: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are [sons] children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ–if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:14-16).
Revitalizing Faith Communities
I have tried to show how central the notion of Ascension is for understanding the witness of the both the Old and New Testaments. Ascension is not just an idea, it is a particular way of viewing the world. As a worldview, Ascension leads us to the following affirmations: we affirm that there is a road between heaven and earth; we affirm that this road leads to the house of God; we affirm that the door of the house is open; we affirm that we are children of this house; we affirm that there is room at the table; we affirm that this house is home.
But we say more. Ascension is not only a way of viewing the world, it is also a way of living in the world. We say in the Lord’s Prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We say these words so often, we often fail to understand what we are really saying. We are committing ourselves to a particular way of living. We are saying that our houses are to be like God’s house. We affirm that there is a road between our house and the world; we affirm that the door of our house is open; we affirm that the vulnerable ones are children of our house; we affirm that there is room at our table; we affirm that our house is a home for others.
The road that links my house and Western Seminary is called College. For nineteen years now I have walked it up and down. I know where the sidewalk is cracked and where it has been repaired. I’ve watched cement being poured for driveways, silvery and new, and I have watched it darken as the pigment of fallen leaves bleeds into it. I mark the trees and remember those that have been cut down; I notice when and where fl owers are planted and how they are often signs of hope in otherwise barren yards. I observe the condition of the houses. I become acquainted with the dogs, and I have learned that the spirit of the dog often manifests the spirit of the house. College has become part of my life, a part of my spiritual geography. I have learned things about myself and my world as I pass through it. People whose names I do not even know have shared their lives with me and taught me truths about God’s way with the world.
I remember a particular morning. As was my pattern, I cut behind the Admiral gas station and was heading north toward the seminary. Moving against the grain of children making their way to Longfellow School, I heard the voice of a mother yelling from inside a house across the street.
“Hurry up! Hurry up!”
A boy and a girl, maybe nine and ten, banged open the aluminum door of the front porch and walked down the steps toward the car in the driveway. As they got into the car, their mother appeared in the doorway. She turned back toward the inside of the house and yelled,
“I said, hurry up. If you’re not ready, we’re gonna leave ya behind!”
As the mother made her way to the car, a third child, a boy perhaps five years old, tumbled down the front steps holding his back pack while trying to put on his coat. “Hurry up! Hurry up!” the mother kept yelling. The more she yelled, the more the boy struggled. He was writhing on the ground.
“Momma, momma, wait for me,” the boy pleaded.
“That’s it,” the mother said, “We’re leaving.” She got into the car, revved the engine, and backed into the street. The boy sat up on his knees bewildered. As they drove down the street, he stood up and ran after them, crying out, “Momma, Momma! Come back! Come back!”
The human drama unfolding before me was unsettling and painful to watch. At one level, I say it was emblematic of the (hyper)modern world of which we are all a part, emblematic of how a hurry-up culture magnifies our faults and destroys community and family lives. At a more personal level, I realized that one of the deepest fears known to human beings had been realized in that young boy’s life, the fear of abandonment. Life would never be the same for him. At some level of his being, he would forever carry the fear that home was not what it appeared to be. He knew now that those he loved and those upon whom he depended were capable of driving away and leaving him behind.
His mother would surely try to make it up to him: an ice cream cone or a special birthday cake. In a refl ective moment, she would realize what she had done and would say that she was sorry. Yet, whatever assurances of love he would receive now or in the course of his life, they would have to be measured against this knowledge of abandonment. Such assurances just might not be enough to change his fear to faith again.
We all share the boy’s experience, often in less dramatic form. No parent ever loves us the way we need to be loved. No parent ever could. Parents bear their own hurts and pass them on, often unknowingly, to their own children. Small episodes of abandonment add up over the years, and the weight presses down on us–“I’m too tired; here is some money, take one of your friends to the movies; can’t you do better than that; if you do that one more time, I’m gonna let you have it; Mommy, Daddy, watch me, watch me.” We find ourselves caught between longing for the home we never had and lashing out at the one we did have. We ache in our hearts to be loved, to be known, to be carefree in the presence of others. We ache for the place where perfect love casts out fear.
However God has gifted you and wherever you find yourself, tell this boy and this boy in all of us that he is a child of God, that he has a home. However God has gifted you and wherever you find yourself, strive to make your house the house of God. Make sure the door to your house is open and that the road leading to it is well-traveled. If you do this, your house of worship will be full.