*This article was originally published by The Church of the Holy Trinity
When I was little, someone gave me a picture book about angels. In the story, a young boy dies tragically of an illness. His spirit rises up out of his body, and is quickly carried away, through the ceiling and into the sky. He arrives in the clouds, and looking around, he sees a bunch of people dressed in white, lounging around. The place is spotless, brilliant white, and the people are all stunning in their beauty. They all have great big bird wings, and a few inches above each of their heads, hangs a bright circlet of gold. The boy reaches for his back, and above his head, and is dismayed to realize he has no wings, and is lacking a halo. For the rest of the story, he explores the celestial sphere seeking his due angelic accoutrements.
This story captivated me. It grabbed my small mind and dug its way deep in there. For years, this was my image of heaven. This was my vision of the kingdom. Clouds against the bluest sky, angels and wings and halos. Possibly endearing, definitely bogus, and certainly heretical, this book, and others like it, shaped my imagination. It wove its net around how I thought about this world, and the world to come.
And when I first read about the Ascension, it was into this net that I placed the story. Luke tells us that “While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” I know exactly what that means. Jesus’ spirit rises up, just like that little boy’s, and he flies upwards and into the clouds. Heaven. Life after death. Hope.
But as I grew older, and more critical, and as I experienced loss, and death, and brokenness, that net began to weaken, and crumble. The hope of one day lounging on clouds flickered and faded. My reason and logic kicked in and I quickly jettisoned the entire thing, along with any other hokey junk that was tied up with it, including Jesus. Whoever gave me that book had the best intentions, but inadvertently ended up placing heaven, and God, and Jesus in the same realm with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, nice stories we tell children to help them sleep.
While I rejected that vision of heaven, I never realized how deeply that story, and others like it, embedded their way into my imagination. Ideas about the depravity of flesh, and the purity of spirit. Ideas about where to locate my identity. Ideas about the shamefulness of human bodies. These stories teach us that we are not the fleshy husks we are forced to inhabit, that we are prisoners in our own skin, and true freedom, true enlightenment, lies somewhere else entirely.
When Adam bit the forbidden fruit, he cast a divide between heaven and earth. He drove a wedge between humanity and God; and he set us off looking for identity in all the wrong places. No longer known in the presence of God, we are drawn elsewhere to find our identity. We seek to find ourselves, in ourselves, and end up lonely, and broken, and wishing to leave this world behind.
Ever since Adam, people have sought to escape their bodies, to find enlightenment and freedom beyond the disappointments of the flesh. And now technology has allowed us space to live out actual, disembodied lives. Places where we can leave the limitations, and letdowns, of our bodies behind. Places where we can express our real selves, our ideal selves. Myself made in my own image. My life drawn by my own hand. Blemishes removed, excess fat trimmed, annoying habits subdued. The internet has given us what we always wanted, but it has not made us any happier, and now we, like the angel boy, wander among the clouds, searching for our wings.
“He parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” As Jesus’ stood outside Bethany, with his beloved disciples for the last time, he blesses them, and he parts from them, and is carried up and into heaven. The word for ‘parted’ and ‘carried up’ is actually the same word used twice in the same sentence. In English, this word can be translated as to separate, to disjoin, or to depart.
Jesus leaves this world, certainly, but he does not forsake it. He ascends into heaven, not as a spirit, not as a ghost, but as a human, with a body, with skin and hair and hands and feet. He crosses the divide that Adam wrought, and drags his flesh through with him, sealing what once was broken, and mending what once was severed. In his separation, Jesus heals, and in his leaving this world, he re-supplants us into the holy presence of God, so that while a body may dwell in heaven, the Spirit may dwell on earth.
As he steps out, or up, and into the presence of eternity, Jesus refuses what Adam so quickly embraced: shame and self-hatred. With no hesitation, Jesus walks into heaven, clothed in crucified flesh, and takes his rightful seat beside his Father, and in doing so, changes absolutely everything. The Ascension gives us, in one moment, an embodied vision of heaven, devoid of ghostly wings and halos; a transformation of the material world, now sanctified in the presence of God; and a re-understanding of our human identity and our bodies, forever proclaimed as God’s beloved.
I can’t help but think of Thomas’ face in Caravaggio’s painting, The Incredulity of Thomas. The painting depicts Jesus gently pulling Thomas’ finger into his side. And as Thomas’ dirty, human finger enters the flesh of God, Thomas’ eyes bulge, “My Lord and my God.” This is the powerfully raw force behind the moment of Ascension, wherein, God finds it right and meet to draw his Son back to him, and not just his spirit, or his soul, but his body. This is the moment that Jesus sees it fit to invite our dirty fingers into his side, and our imperfect, blemished bodies into his presence. This is the moment that Jesus breaks from this world to save this world, undoing and redeeming Adam’s sin, and reminding us once, and always, that we are beloved of God, body and soul.
Image 1: Lutheran Church at East Lansing
Image 2: Ascension Icon from the Pskov Caves
Image 3: Carvaggio, The Incredulity of St. Thomas