If you and I are to understand what it means to say that Jesus ascended into heaven, we first need to work out what we mean by “heaven”. Now that’s much more difficult than it seems. It’s easy enough to talk about things on the earth because we can see them and measure them and observe them scientifically, but heaven is not like that at all. Indeed, though we may talk about “going” to heaven or being “in” heaven, we don’t really mean what we say. We are using earthly words to describe something that is not earthly at all. It’s a bit like someone saying they are “in love”. We all know that you can’t actually be inside love, but we all know what people mean when they say they are “in love”, and as Christians we normally assume that such people are heading for marriage.
Maybe it helps to remember that we use other words in church that mean the same thing as “heaven”. Like Jesus, we use the expression “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” and we remember that Jesus said that such a kingdom is not far away somewhere else, but is very near, even in the midst of us. Today the prayer I said before the Bible readings used another expression for heaven. Let me repeat it for you. “God our Father, make us joyful in the ascension of your Son Jesus Christ. May we follow him into the new creation.” So here heaven is described as “the new creation” – a term used by St Paul when he says, “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17) You see the problem with these words about heaven! One minute we are following Christ into a new creation, the next we are “in” Christ and we are a new creation, and both are ways of describing the indescribable – being with God and in God who is beyond anything that we can imagine or describe. in a situation outside the space and time which is the physical universe as far as we know it.
At the heart of all this is our belief that there is more to life than just the physical things we can see and measure. We believe that we are more than just flesh and bone, that there is something in us and around for which we use the term “spiritual”. We say that we are not just a body but also a soul. Notice that we don’t “have” a soul, as if it were a bit of our body – a bit that the doctors could cut out if they wanted to. No. we say that we “are” a soul, that we have a spiritual being as well as a physical body. We also believe that to be fully human we need to recognise our spiritual side as well as our physical, and allow God to take us through the physical death that we all have to face one day, into the spiritual world that we can already sense, the spiritual world that St Paul calls “the new creation”.
Ascension is therefore the opposite of Christmas. Both festivals in different ways celebrate how God bridges the gap between earth and heaven, between the physical and the spiritual. God, who exists eternally outside time and space, the creative power of love and goodness underlying the universe, chooses to come to close to us, to reveal himself to us, in a way that we can understand. So he becomes present in the world as the man Jesus who, just like any other man or woman, is not just spiritual but also physical. That’s the truth we celebrate at Christmas. Now, at the Ascension, we celebrate the fact that the human Jesus, transformed by his death and resurrection, moves back into the spiritual dimension. God’s presence – Jesus who has defeated death and become the new creation – is thus no longer localised in one body in one place, but is present everywhere as the Holy Spirit.
This is presented to the apostles as a physical movement – upwards into the clouds – but actually it’s not really a physical movement at all. Jesus disappears from physical sight because he is being transferred from the physical to the spiritual. He has, as the writer of the 2nd reading (Hebrews 9:24-28 10:19-23) says, entered “heaven itself” and through him we too have the “right to enter the sanctuary” – to enter heaven and be with God for ever. This total process, from Christmas to the Ascension, is a great declaration by God that we human beings do not just sense the spiritual world but are called to be part of it. It gives us a vision of ourselves that lifts us beyond the merely physical. It is that vision, the vision that we humans are more than a squabbling destructive group of physical bodies, that the message of the Ascension gives us. If life is just the here and now, there is really no point in us caring about one another at all! Better for me to aim for as much pleasure as possible and ignore the rest of you unless you can be of some use to me. If the Ascension is not true, we might as well get back to squabbling, but if it is true, then all that is good and loving makes sense because our future is in heaven.