In the church calendar, The Festival of Ascension and it sits between the two festivals of Easter and Pentecost. Easter is when we celebrate the resurrected Jesus, and Pentecost is when we celebrate God’s Spirit coming to live in all believers. Ascension sits between the very physical, real, present and living resurrected Jesus, and the very spiritual, real, presence of the Holy Spirit. So what happens in-between? What is Ascension? And how can we make sense of it and understand it?
We are going to do a little bit of theology now, so you might want to take a swig of that coffee (or gin and tonic) before reading on!
The gospel writer, Luke, records the Ascension of Jesus using typical biblical imagery. He describes Jesus as being “carried up into heaven” and then in his second book (called Acts) as being, “lifted up to where a cloud hid him from view” and that the disciples were left “gazing up toward heaven.” In the ultimate vanishing act, Jesus disappeared from the earth to return to heaven.
Remember those Venn Diagrams from school? To understand this movement of Jesus from one realm to another, I find a helpful analogy, from our perspective, to think of earth and heaven as two partially overlapping circles. Traditionally, writers have thought about heaven being above, and earth being below — i.e. they have tried to rationalize them in space — but it is more useful to think of them as different coexisting dimensions!
God’s plan is that one day, both heaven and earth will be once again fully aligned, but for now they only overlap in part. We live in the earthly circle and God resides in the heavenly circle. Now, the place where heaven and earth overlapped was in and through the person of Jesus Christ. When heaven came to earth through Jesus, all heaven broke out — there were signs and wonders and all kinds of miracles.
At the Ascension, the person of Jesus, moved back from the overlapping space into the heavenly circle. Why? So that God’s Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity, could move into the overlapping space. And the place where heaven and earth overlaps is now (enabled by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus) in the hearts and minds of believers. Literally, God’s Spirit — the Spirit of Jesus — makes his home in each and every believer.
This makes sense because the person of Jesus can only be present to all people by and through his Spirit. Jesus repeatedly told his disciples that unless he returned (ascended) to the Father he would not be able to send the Holy Spirit. And so, God’s plan of heaven and earth becoming more aligned happens by God’s Spirit working in and through the world — through God’s people — that is you and I. We are literally expanding heaven (God’s kingdom) on earth by our very presence, and are called to take God’s light into the gloomiest and most broken parts of our world.
Now, I am not suggesting we, the church (including me), have always got it right, but that God is about restoring, redeeming, and renewing the world, and it begins with you and I. This is why the Ascension of Jesus is immediately followed by the coming of God’s Spirit, celebrated on Holy Spirit Day (Pentecost), where God became freely available — real and present — in the hearts and minds of believers.
If you have made it this far, well done! It’s time for another swig of that coffee (or gin and tonic)!
Without the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, the church is simply a club based on a long-dead historic leader. It reduces religion from a dynamic, living, breathing relationship to a boring bunch of rules that need to be followed. And who wants to be part of that? Not me! It is the Holy Spirit of God living in us that drives us, leads us, guides us, and comforts us. It is the Holy Spirit that, literally, breathes life into the church. It is the Holy Spirit that transforms us into the likeness of Christ, bevels the hard corners of our hearts, and fills us with a deep love and inclusion for others. To be filled with the Holy Spirit is to embark on a new way of life and to have life in all its fullness, and best of all, the gift of the Holy Spirit is free — all we have to do is ask.