Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras
The Feast of the Ascension of our Lord. June 2, 2019
Peace be with you from God, our father and Jesus Christ our Savior, and the Holy Spirit our Sanctifier.
What has to do with you the ascension of our Lord? Is it important? There are very significant events in Jesus earthly life. For example, the birth of Jesus is very significant because God became a human being, one of us. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ saved me from sin, and his resurrection saved me from death. How the feast of the ascension effects my faith and life. Today many Christians look at the ascension of our Lord as fiction or unrealistic. We need to uncover the Jewish understanding of heaven and earth to understand the significant meaning of the ascension.
Our world today is impacted by ancient Greek philosophy. We tend to believe that heaven and earth are worlds apart. Greek philosophy teaches that the world is a prison, and our body is a prison; our soul is longing to escape this body. Death is a beautiful moment because it liberates the soul from the body. Salvation, according to ancient Greek philosophy, means getting out on this world to heaven. Do not we think in this way?
The Jews do not think that way. The first century Jews understood heaven to be the realm of God and angels, and the earth is the realm of God’s creatures. Heaven and earth are not radically separate, but they are linked. The purpose of salvation, according to the Jewish faith, is not about escaping this sinful world and go to heaven, but rather the transformation of this earth by heaven.
For instance, after Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus tells him “19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). The Lord’s prayer comes out of deeply Jewish sensibility. “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). This prayer is about heaven and the earth are coming together. When we pray this prayer, we invite God to reign on earth as God reigns in heaven. Another example is from our Eucharist/Holy Communion liturgy. We sing the heavenly song that is recorded in the book of Isaiah, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). God does not distance Godself from our world.
In terms of Jesus resurrection, the Jewish understanding of heaven and earth are the context of the resurrection. The resurrection is not about Jesus escaping his body. The resurrected body of Jesus is very emphasized in the Gospels. Jesus tells his disciples that he is not a ghost because he has a body. To prove that he is not a ghost, he asks to eat, and his disciples offer him fish. The purpose of stressing on Jesus resurrected body is to underline that his soul is not in a distant place. The descriptions of Jesus resurrected body reflect the Jewish sensibility.
In terms of Jesus ascension, his ascension is not like NASA rocket trip to space. It does mean the translation of this earthly reality into the heavenly dimension. Furthermore, the ascension of Jesus is collocated with the Pentecost. A something of earth goes up into the heavenly realm, and something from heaven comes down to the earthly realm. It is the meeting of heaven and earth; the transformation of earth by heaven.
Let us go back to my first question. What has to do with you the ascension of our Lord? The church is the mystical body of Jesus. In our baptism, we are transformed by Christ and his heavenly power. Our calling is to continue his work of bringing heaven and earth together. Jesus gives us his Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The ascension of Christ is significant to the church because his ascension commands us to be his witnesses on earth. Our calling is to go to the world and do what we can to bring heaven and earth together. Our Christian vocation is to help those who live in darkness to taste heaven here on earth. Our calling is to bring heaven down to earth.