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What the Ascension is (and isn’t)

Among the easiest and most difficult topics in Christian theology is the ascension of Jesus Christ. The description given in Scripture and in most hymns is quite simple: “As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9) or “God has gone up with a triumphant shout” (Ps 47:5). Any close consideration of this idea, however, raises a number of difficulties. After all, where is this place to which he goes up? Where is heaven? Are we to imagine that Christ shot up into the upper atmosphere and kept on “climbing” the heavens until he reached some unknown location? Is heaven one stop beyond the galaxy? More disturbing, we have to wonder about what happened to Jesus’ material body.

It’s partly due to these absurdities that the idea of Jesus’ ascension is puzzling to many. It’s not made easier by the fact that Jesus speaks of a “departure” to go to the Father and send the Spirit, along with a constant “abiding” with us forever. Similarly, we have to realize that, even in his descent to us in the Incarnation, Christ did not depart from his place with the Father: “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the son of man who is in heaven” (John 3:13). He remained where he was and what he was, even in stooping down to our level, and he did not cease to be among us and be what we are, even in ascending on high. He was ever our God in the heavens and he is ever a human being, remaining with us. The crux remains, though: where is the human body of Jesus?

Based sheerly on personal experience, it seems to me that many of us resolve this conundrum in one of three ways: (1) stubborn literalism, (2) a theory of bodily abandonment, or (3) an ecclesiological solution. I’ll expand each of these, before offering a fourth approach, recognizing others might exist. [Excuse my channeling of Epiphanius of Salamis here; I realize he’s not the most popular theologian of the fourth century].

First: stubborn literalism. This view is quite simple. Either its adherents have not really taken the time to consider the problems of a literal ascent of Christ into heaven or they realize the problems but refuse to relinquish their understanding out a sense of fidelity to Scripture.

Second: a theory of bodily abandonment. This solution is one I personally find difficult to tolerate. Its adherents imagine that the ascent is some return of the Son to a purely immaterial or spiritual existence, usually explained in such a way that what is really described is the cessation or nullification of the Son’s human nature, albeit with a continued “spiritual presence” among us. This view is even held by some who would otherwise champion the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Apparently, most are unworried that the Son would cease to be incarnate for a couple of millennia.

Third: the ecclesiological solution. Christ’s body remains on earth, either in or as the Church. This sounds quite good at first and partakes of some bits of orthodoxy. Leo the Great, for example, says that Christ’s “visible things pass over into the sacraments” (visibilia transiuit sacramenta) at the Ascension, and Bede talks of Christ being “present in the saints” from this moment onwards. Going with this solution would allow the proclamation of a particular Catholic truth: if you wish to draw near to Christ, embrace the sacramental life of the Church and draw near to its members. One could back this idea up readily with any number of scriptural passages. But does this really solve our problem? How does this make sense of the language of Scripture, especially the promise of Christ’s returning “just as” he departed? Do we imagine him emerging from the Church at the end of time? Or is there a place from which he shall descend? Where is heaven?

It seems to me that none of these approaches quite works. The first is cosmologically incoherent, the second heretical, and the third worrisome, making Christ coterminous with the Church. I’d take the third if I had to, but I’d rather mix them together and carve out another approach.

The easiest thing to say is that we’re not really sure how to speak about “where” Christ’s body is, but we feel we must use the language Scripture gives us. The Ascension is a real departure and a real exaltation into the heavens. At the same time, we are sure that his body is present with us in mysteries and sacraments: in Eucharist and Baptism, in the gathered church, in particular saints. This is not easily classified as an immaterial presence. There is a body to which we draw near, abiding with us until the end of time. In this sense, solutions (1) and (3) come together. Our second option helps as well, if transformed a bit. Christ is, of course, present to us through the Spirit. And, whatever else may be said, Christ’s body does become “spiritual,” not in the sense of being immaterial, intangible, or incapable of dwelling among us, but in the sense of being immortal, incorruptible, and glorious.

So we know what the Ascension is not. It is not abandonment. Christ does not leave his Church, nor does he leave his human body. He is not now, in any regular sense, “immaterial.” His body cannot die or be corrupted in any way. And we can say a little about what it is. The Ascension makes possible his presence among us in the Spirit, in our bodies and those of his other members, and in the sacraments. More could (and should) undoubtedly be said, positively and negatively. But this, at least, is a beginning.

The featured image is a stained glass in the Cathedral Church of St Giles, Edinburgh. It was uploaded by Flickr user Lawrence OP and is licensed under Creative Commons. 


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