As we close the liturgical calendar on the great resurrection-ascension-giving of the Spirit narratives, it is fitting to ask what happened at the ascension of Jesus as related in Luke/Acts. It seems to me that many people become more disbelieving in the narrative at the point of ascension, only to regain their theological composure at the giving of the Spirit. Out of embarrassment at a resurrected Jesus barrelling around the earth, Luke’s ascension becomes a piece of theology without historical root.
Let me try to salvage the ascension in Luke/Acts from that kind of embarrassment. I will do so by beginning with the resurrection of Jesus. When we say that Jesus is raised to new life, is alive again, etc., we don’t mean that he is literally alive again the way he was before he was dead. If we meant that then Jesus would have had to die again. (Like Lazarus, who was brought back to literal life only to die again.) Life, as we experience it now, is coordinated with death. Resurrection breaks through the binary of life and death. Resurrection is better thought of as sheer livingness. (Parallel this with the theology of God who just ‘is’.) We use ‘life’ to describe resurrection because it structures our thought in a helpful way. ‘Alive’ is an obvious candidate to use of resurrection because Jesus was formerly literally dead. But he is now no longer only literally dead. He is resurrected. Using ‘life’ this way doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t bodily resurrected. It is entirely the opposite. It is because Jesus is bodily resurrected that Christians had to use a word from their experience and make it mean something else. How else could one describe meeting someone who had the wounds of a dead man yet was no longer dead (but not alive in the usual sense – think again of the mortal wounds Jesus shows his disciples) who could be amongst them unrecognised, cook breakfast, etc.? Resurrection was absolutely new. It had to be related through metaphor, otherwise what could be said? To read the metaphor literally is to crush the event itself and its theological meaning.
Now return to the ascension. The ascension does not need to be read literally. In fact, just as in the case of the resurrection, we crush the ascension if we do read it literally. I would argue that it is because Jesus bodily ascended that the disciples described it in the language of Luke/Acts. The event lent itself to the language with all its precedents in Jewish and pagan literature but controlled by the events themselves. (Which is why the narrative is quite sparse at this point in comparison to other ascensions of the ancient world.) It should be no more difficult to conceive of this use of metaphor in respect of an actual ascension than it is to refer to an actual resurrection with the word ‘alive’. Neither is easy, but neither resurrection nor ascension is more difficult that the other. Both are on the edge of usual experience, both can’t be controlled, and neither of them can be controlled (for belief or rejection) by making the narrative literal. Both are structuring our experience and understanding because Christ is raised and is the ascended Lord, whose presence is now a living Spirit in our lives.
(See here and here for further reflections on the ascension along similar lines with helpful comments from readers.)