Finding Comfort in the Ascension


The feast of the Ascension is a feast of comfort and consolation for the people of God. But it can for some people represent a stumbling block. Looking at the ascension of Christ as it is narrated in Scriptures, does the Church then really believe that accepting the Ascension also involves accepting a literal three-storey universe? And that Christ went up from the earth’s surface to heaven which is located miles above the earth’s surface—perhaps a little to the right of the North Star, and then making a sharp left turn after the Milky Way and on a further three and a half parsecs until you get to the heavenly palace? And that in heaven God sits on a chair, and that there is another chair placed slightly to the right of it, on which Jesus now sits?

The answer to these questions, happily, is “No”. But in describing the indescribable, the Scriptures and the Church must of necessity use the language of metaphor, symbol, and poetry.

For the Ascension of Christ is all but indescribable. It involves the union of a man here on earth with the infinite power and presence of God, the liberation of the Man Christ Jesus from the limitations of our time-space continuum, so that He now shares the omnipresence and omniscience and omnipotence of the Father. The fusion of all those “omni’s” with a single human hypostasis makes head spin around a bit, and leaves our richest imagination in the dust. Picking up the poor and blunt instrument of metaphor, all the Church can say is, “He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father”.

(Those wishing a bit more discussion are referred to a short excursus on the Ascension in my commentary on the Acts of the Apostles.)

The Ascension represents both Christ’s departure to a place far away from us, and also His abiding in our midst, both of which are a comfort and a consolation.

At the Ascension, Christ took up His seat at the Father’s right hand, sharing the omnipotence of the Father, far away from us. In other words, Jesus of Nazareth now sits in heaven, and shares the rule over the world with God His Father. Do you ask who is now the ruler of the world? Jesus.

Admittedly there is plenty of prima facie evidence to the contrary. All around us, on the horizon and on the six o’clock news, we see war, crime, hatred, and death. Here in the West, formerly a bastion of Christian culture, we have, in defiance of nature, canonized sexual perversion and the maternal slaughter of their own unborn children, glorifying sexual perversion and murder and celebrating them as indisputable evidence of human moral progress. We are even losing the ancient ability to distinguish male from female—an ability on which the human race formerly depended for its physical survival.

What can be said about this? Only that “an enemy has done this” (see Matthew 13:28)—specifically, the Enemy, Satan, the adversary of God and men. St. Paul called Satan “the god of this age”, and St. John declared that the whole world lies the power of the Evil One (2 Corinthians 4:4, 1 John 5:19). All this argues against God being on the throne, ruling His world as the Pantokrator.

Yet even so, the Lord reigns. St. Paul insists on it, and says that Christ will reign until the end, when the Father finally puts all things under His feet (1 Corinthians 15:25f). All things ultimately serve the purposes of God—even such bad things as the betrayal of Judas and the political cowardice of Pilate. If God makes all things work together for good for us Christians (Romans 8:28), surely all things will work together to serve His final purposes for the world.

We should therefore not despair, or imagine that the globe is somehow spinning out of control. Christ is in control, and the world will end as it pleases Him. It will not end with a whimper or a bang, but with the glory of God filling it like the waters cover the sea. One sometimes hears of frightened despairing people refusing to have children, and saying that they would not bring another child into a world like this. Nonsense. We need not fear. Do you ask why one should bring children into a world like this? So that they can meet Jesus.

The Ascension is therefore a source of comfort to us whenever the evils of the world tempt us to quail and despair. The sea may swell and roar and its proud waves break against us with thunder. But Christ is on the throne, and He says to them, “Thus you shall come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped” (Job 38:11). The world may soak us, but it will never drown us. Jesus has ascended on high.

The Ascension also means that Christ is still with us—and in fact is nearer to us than ever. In the days of His flesh, His presence was limited: if He was in Galilee and you were in Judea, you had to leave where you were, travel north, and then find Him somewhere among the cities of Galilee. If He was in Judea and you were in Galilee, you had to travel south to find Him among the highlands of Judea. But now that He has ascended to the Father’s right hand, any of His followers may have immediate and instant access to His presence, whether they live in Galilee or Judea or Moscow or Kiev or Langley, B.C. Now He is only a prayer away, and is closer to us than the breath in our lungs and the blood pulsing through our veins.

Now that He has ascended and poured out His Spirit, He is among us as often as we gather in His Name. And whether in an assembled crowd or alone in the dark, when we cry to Him, He is there. And that is a comfort to us as we journey through this darkened land of death and bereavement with the acrid smell of battle smoke ever in our nostrils.

Luke’s Gospel ends with the Ascension; Matthew’s Gospel ends not with the Ascension, but with the fruits of the Ascension, for it ends with the Lord’s promise, “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age”. We testify to His Ascension every time we say the blessed words, “Christ is in our midst!” He ascended from us so that He could be with us forever.

In this wounded and wounding world, we need comfort—and are reminded that the word “comfort” originally meant “strength”. The feast of the Ascension is a feast of strength—the strength to fight on until the Lord returns and the world is finally set right.

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