Today, forty days after Easter, is the Feast of the Ascension.
As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:9-11).
On April 12, 1961 the Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, was the first man to enter outer space and orbit the earth. Western sources claimed that during this space flight Gagarin commented, “I don’t see any God up here.” Later sources denied Gagarin made that statement and attributed the following to Nikita Khrushchev, “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any God there”.
Regardless, the statement points to some assumptions, even misunderstandings, about God and God’s relationship to the world. Too often we believe, speak, and even live as if God is “up there” and not down here, somewhere “out there” and not within. We are left with a gap between God and humanity, spirit and matter, heaven and earth. So if Gagarin had only flown higher would he have seen God?
A literal reading of the ascension story might leave us looking up toward heaven in an attempt to get one last glimpse of Jesus. The difficulty is that we sometimes think of heaven as another place, as there are places in the world. The logic that follows this way of thinking is that if Jesus ascends to heaven, then he must go to another place. Rather than looking up seeking to catch one last glimpse of Jesus the ascension directs us to look within.
The ascension is about presence not absence. Jesus has not left us. Rather Christ has filled us. Former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, “The ascension of Christ is his liberation from all restrictions of time and space. It does not represent his removal from earth, but his constant presence everywhere on earth.” Christ now fills and sanctifies all time and space. The grace of the ascension is that “Christ is all in all!” (Col. 3:11). The unity of humanity and divinity revealed in the incarnation is brought to fullness in the ascension.
Jesus disappears in his ascension beyond the clouds, not into some geographical location, but into the heart of all creation where he dwells in his glorified humanity. The ascension reveals that in Christ’s humanity, all humanity has been enthroned next to God. It is our “eternalization,” and from that moment on our homeland is in heaven. Through the ascension Christ is still present but in a different way—an interiorized way. He is no longer physically in front of his disciples but rather within them.
Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ
ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things:
Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his
promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end
of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and
reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory
everlasting. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)