On May 9th (Ascension Day) we met with the day’s newspapers and prayers, and then discussed the meaning of the Ascension for us today.
What does the Ascension mean for us today? Mark 16:19 says: “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God”, but the disciples could not have literally seen that. This verse belongs to one of the “endings” of Mark’s Gospel which is found only in some manuscripts. Other versions of Mark end at verse 8, with the women running away from the empty tomb, scared out of their wits. If verse 19 is an addition, and not something they literally saw, isn’t it misleading for those of us who were taught to take the Bible literally in every detail?
But the verse describes not what they literally saw, but what it meant to them. Jesus parted from them. Some accounts mention a cloud (Acts 1:9), as at the Transfiguration (eg Mark 9:7). In the Hebrew Scriptures a cloud is often associated with God’s presence. This was all understood in terms of Daniel’s vision of a “son of man”, the embodiment of God’s people, who comes to God on the “clouds of heaven” , and receives authority to replace the four “beasts” (Empires) which have been destroyed (Daniel chapter 7). It is clear from the Gospels that Jesus saw his role as fulfilling the hope of Daniel (and also of other writers “between the Testaments”).
We should not think of “going to heaven” as leaving the world for a distant place. For the ancient world “heaven” was the realm that governed the life of this world (many thought that their lives were ordered by the movement of stars, planets, sun and moon- to the Jews, however, it was God who was “in heaven”, who ultimately governed human history). Some would see “heaven” as regular and reliable, in contrast to the forces of chaos and destruction (volcanoes, earthquakes and the sea) coming from beneath the earth- with the earth caught between the two.
The Ascension of Jesus “to heaven” is seen by the New Testament as a “coronation”, sharing now in God’s authority over the world (a bit like Charles sitting next to the Queen for her Speech??). But this is not authority won by force or a divine miracle, but through suffering love (Jesus also saw his work as a fulfilment of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant of God). John’s Gospel, rather than describing an Ascension “event”, in 12:31 and 32 speaks of the “ruler of this world” being expelled when Christ is “lifted up” (on the Cross, at the Ascension, or in the witness of the Church??- perhaps in all three). Other verses in the New Testament paint the same picture- eg Luke 9:51, 24:50 and 51; Ephesians 1:20 and 21, 4:8 to 10; Hebrews 1:1 to 3, 10:12 and 13; 1 Peter 3:21b and 22.
Revelation 12:1 to 9 describes the Ascension of Christ as beginning the expulsion of “the Devil” from heaven (ie from any real authority), so that now evil is reduced to fighting back despairingly and viciously on earth. (Luke 10:17 to 21 pictures the same thing as the result of the ministry of Jesus and his disciples). A clue to understanding this is perhaps Revelation’s description of the Devil as a “deceiver”. Evil and injustice can only retain its authority in the world by deceit. Once its lies have been unmasked (there is a good deal in the Gospels about truth which “lifts the lid” on injustice) it can only hold on to power by force and violence, which ultimately is doomed to failure and self-destruction.
If this is what the New Testament means by the Ascension, is it credible as “Good News” for our world today? That we can only discover by living its message in our society, with all its present dilemmas and conflicts.