The Point of Intersection

The Good News of Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven

Jason Micheli / 5.25.22

Eastertide wraps to a close on Thursday with the Feast of the Ascension. Don’t feel guilty if you didn’t have it marked on your calendars. What was once the high holy day when Christians rejoiced that God has made Jesus King over all the nations of the Earth is now just a Thursday.

It’s not hard to see why Ascension is largely ignored. For one thing, if Christ has been given dominion over the Earth, then Jesus doesn’t appear to be doing a very good job. As Woody Allen jokes, “If God exists, he’s basically an underachiever.” What about the horrific war being waged against Ukraine? Or the shortage of baby formula? Yet another violent massacre inspired by racism? Perhaps going from carpenter to King was too big a promotion for Jesus.

Maybe that’s why we ignore the Ascension. But surely one reason we ignore the Ascension is the embarrassing, unbelievable imagery of it. The Ascension is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with Christianity in the modern world. It’s a primitive, superstitious picture in a rational, scientific world.

The physics of it are all wrong. Jesus is lifted up into the air like he’s drunk too much fizzy lifting drink. Jesus, the first astronaut, going up, up, up and away, exit stage heaven. Why wouldn’t we ignore such a ridiculous image in the twenty-first century? It’s fantastical. It’s the perfect example of why it’s so hard for modern people to take the Bible seriously. To take belief in God seriously.

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” the two angels ask the eleven remaining disciples. But why wouldn’t they be looking up to the sky? Isn’t that the whole problem with the Ascension? With believing in God in general?

Those disciples, and the ones that came after them, the ones who wrote the creeds and compiled the canon, they believed God was “up there.” They believed the Earth was a flat, disk-shaped place around which the sun and the stars revolved.

Not only that, they believed the Earth floated on water, with the underworld below and heaven above just beyond the clouds. And it gets more embarrassing. They believed that between heaven and earth was more water, water that could inundate the Earth at any moment were it not for the firmament, seriously the “firmament,’ a sky-colored bowl that sits over the earth and holds back the oceans of universe.

It’s laughable.

And they believed in a Being who lived “up there” above the Earth. Beyond the clouds and the firmament. Up there. In heaven. And isn’t that the problem the Ascension makes unavoidable for us? We know God’s not up there, not above the clouds, not beyond the firmament.

Ascension calls BS on our unspoken secret: we know that the God portrayed in scripture doesn’t exist. And if that God doesn’t exist, who’s to say God exists at all?

Where the disciples lived in an age where everyone believed in a God up there and disbelief was inconceivable, we live in an age where no one believes in a Man Upstairs and disbelief in God altogether isn’t just a possibility it’s the fastest growing faith in America.

Maybe that’s the reason we ignore the Ascension. It reminds us that we live in a different age.

But we didn’t get here overnight. It’s been a long time coming.

*****

In 1637, Rene Descartes, a philosopher and mathematician, helped give birth to the modern world in which we all live. Descartes was plagued by the anxiety that everything he’d been taught to believe to be true might be false. Descartes locked himself away and set out to strip away all his received certainties — even 1+1 = 2. Descartes wanted to arrive at what can be known apart from revelation. Apart from God. Where the ancient starting point for all knowledge had been God, Descartes’ starting point was himself, his own interior life.

I think; therefore, I exist, Descartes concluded. With Descartes, we became the center of the world. Not God.

And when we became the center of the world, the goal of life shifted too. From “The chief end of man is to love God and enjoy him forever,” as the catechism begins, to “the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.” With Descartes, we became the center of the world and the starting point of all knowledge and ever since Descartes what it means for something to be “true” is that it’s true to us. To our senses. To our experience.

We didn’t get here overnight. It happened so slowly we’re not even aware of how shaped we are by it.

We know what those ignorant fishermen in the Gospels do not. We know that the universe is expanding. Changing. In transition. And we know all of the galaxies in the universe are moving away from all the other galaxies in the universe at the same time. They’re moving. It’s called the galactic dispersal. We know the Earth is moving around the sun at roughly sixty-six thousand miles per hour and does so while rotating at the equator at a little over a thousand miles per hour. The universe, the stars, the earth everything is constantly moving and changing and expanding. And so are we. We lose 50-150 strands of hair a day (which is worse news for some of us than others). We shed 10 billion flakes of skin a day. 90% of the dust in our homes is made up of the dead skin we shed. We’re in transition. Every 28 days we get completely new skin. Right down to the atoms and cells, we are constantly moving and changing. Even bodies we bury in the ground keep changing; when God raises them from the dead, they will not be the same atoms they were when they were buried.

Not only do we know that there’s no firmament, we know there’s nothing “firm.” Nothing is stable or constant. Nothing is unchanging. Nothing is not in transition. Everything is constantly moving, in flux. Everything is transitory, momentary. Moving from one way of existing to a new way of existing. Eventually, for example, even Kate McKinnon’s time on SNL comes to an end.

But that begs the question, a question even better than the one the angels ask on Ascension Day: If everything is constantly changing, if we are constantly changing right down to the hairs on our head and the skin that we shed, then how can we be the measure of all things?

How can something in motion, something constantly changing, be the measure of anything?

Ever since Descartes, what it means for something to be “true” is that it’s true to us, to our experience. But we’re all passengers on the train called earth, traveling through space and time at three hundred times faster than the fastest bullet train in India. And anyone who’s ridden on a train knows that everything looks normal and still until you try to take the measure of something out the window.

*****

So how could we ever get a steady enough view to be sure of anything like God?

On this moving train called earth how could we ever get a steady enough view to be sure there’s no Divine Being? Just think about that word “being.” We call ourselves “human beings.” But the word being means someone who is constant. Someone who is still. Someone who is dynamic but doesn’t change. The word being means someone who is necessary, as in, not caused by anything prior to it. Someone who just is. But we’re not like that at all.

Everything that’s created is caused by something else, is changing all the time. Every time you or I do something we change. Our history changes. Our experience changes. Our identity slowly and subtly changes. We become something that didn’t exist previously. So when you think about it, we’re not really beings at all. We’re not constant and changeless and necessary and permanent. We’re not beings.

As human beings, we don’t exist. We are too frail, blown by the whims of our desires and the vacillations of history, our lives necessarily and unavoidably bracketed by a beginning and an end. I mean, we can fly through the air through the miracle of aviation. We can split the atom. We even can wrap a chocolate chip pancake around a breakfast sausage and put it on a stick. We can do a lot of things. But as human beings, we don’t exist. Only human becomings exist. Everything in creation is a becoming. Everything is growing and changing until it decays and dies. And that includes you and me; none of us is getting out of life alive.

“God,” by contrast, is the name we give to Being. Being is the name God gives to himself at the Burning Bush: “I Am He Who Is.” I am is-ness, God reveals to Moses. If Being describes the very identity of God, then to be a being is to be permanent and unchanging, eternal and necessary, without cause or antecedent.

This does not describe us. Far from timeless, our lives are a finite collection of moments. Not only are we less than constant, even the best of us are fickle. Rather than resolute we are reactive, provoked from one passion to another. In calling our lives grace, we in fact acknowledge that we are creatures who need not have been. We are not the same yesterday, today, and always.

This does not describe God. Everything comes from something else and when it dies or decays it contributes to the becoming of something else. Only God is without beginning or end. There’s only one Being. There’s only one God. A fact, I assure you, that was not lost on the disciples, Jews all, as they stared up at Jesus’s scarred feet slipping away behind the clouds. And that’s the answer to the angels’s question at the Ascension: “Why do you stand looking up?”

It’s not really because they thought God is “up there.” The God who is IS can’t be any where. Because such a God must be everywhere. The reason they’re staring up at heaven is that the disciples have a question of their own. They’re wondering how it is that Jesus (flesh and blood, born of Mary Jesus), a time bound human like you or me, could enter — could become — enter eternity. They’re marveling at time and eternity intersecting in Christ before their very eyes. As Karl Barth writes in his Romerbrief:

In this name two worlds meet and go apart, two planes intersect, the one known and the other unknown. The known plane is God’s creation, fallen out of its union with Him, and therefore the world of the ‘flesh’ needing redemption, the world of men, and of time, and of things our world. This known plane is intersected by another plane that is unknown the world of the Father, of the Primal Creation, and of the final Redemption. The relation between us and God, between this world and God’s world, presses for recognition, but the line of intersection is not self-evident. The point on the line of intersection at which the relation becomes observable and observed is Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, the historical Jesus.

How can something that is constantly changing enter into what never changes?

It’s a good question. It’s a question that gets at the very heart of the Gospel. The whole point of the Ascension is that, having taken on our humanity at Christmas, having experienced our humanity to its fullest on Good Friday, and having that humanity emptied from the grave on Easter, Jesus takes our humanity, our changing flesh and blood, our transitory lives and volatile history, into the timeless life of the Trinity.

To make it plain: At the Ascension, Jesus takes our humanity into deity; so that, even as we move about on the earth, itself speeding through space, the clock running down on us all, we are, in him, seated at the right hand of God the Father.

The point of the picture that Luke paints is not the physics. The takeaway is instead the twofold good news.

Firstly, in the Book of Acts Luke shows you what St. Paul tells you in his letter to the Colossians; namely, that your life is right now hidden with Christ in God. No matter where you go in life or how far you wander from the Way, on account of Christ’s rising your true geography will always remain in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Secondly, Luke preaches the simple Gospel message with an elementary picture; specifically, Luke shows us that the promise, “Your sins are forgiven,” comes from the only constant, unchanging thing in existence and therefore it’s not just a promise. It’s an anchor. For all of us who are always in motion, pulled constantly between our sins and our self-justifications, that’s good news indeed.

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COMMENTS


One response to “The Point of Intersection”

  1. John Thomas says:

    Yikes! My head is spinning. But I think I understand better what Tillich means when he described God as the ground of all being. That “ground” is the one unchanging thing that is not becoming. Not Changing. It is the BEing of being. And that’s why we need God. Because God, in a world that is constantly changing as the song goes, IS. And that moment when change and eternity intersect, after Jesus life, death and resurrection is what we inadequately call “the Ascension”. Am I getting close? Now back to kids getting massacred in Uvalde, TX.

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