Through the light of these Christmas days, we are turning our gaze to the coming Christian year. We have arrived at Ascension, the festival of Christ’s Ascent to the Father and into the realm of the clouds. This ascent of his has long been understood to mean that Christ returns to heaven, as reflected in the Nicene creed spoken in most churches: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” It is a kind of mystery language because it speaks in pictures.
It seems clear heaven is a place as we traditionally learned about it: the up there, the not here, the holy realm away from the shadowed earth. The expression about being seated at the right hand of the Father can even sound to our ears like the description of a specific location in Heaven where he has ascended to, describing what he is doing there: he is seated. It sounds as if he is passive there, which can hardly be the case.
What is it that our Creed says of the Ascension, and the new role of Christ after Easter’s forty days? “Since that time he is the Lord of the heavenly forces upon earth and lives as the fulfiller of the fatherly deeds of the ground of the world.”
Here is portrayed something quite different. While still having to do with heaven, it is not a heaven that is far away but that has the capacity to be present on earth. In Christianity this is described in the phrase: “The Kingdom of God has drawn near.” There are heavenly forces which can and do work within earthly life! And there can be many servants of these forces, but there is one Lord. The Son, Christ, has gained rulership over these forces being able to work. He is not far away then, but he too must be here, working. The picture of his Ascension into heaven must carry now another way of thinking about where and what heaven is.
We know something of this from our own lives. Wherever we are can feel like heaven or like hell. We have elevated moments like a sunset behind a fresh snowfall or gazing at a newborn child when we can say: this is like heaven on earth! And those lower moments of deepest suffering, when we say “this is hell on earth. What we do to contribute to this reality matters more than we realize most of the time.
He who is Lord there now—who has ascended to the right hand of the Father—perhaps this is not static after all, but rather captures the image of the right hand as the hand that acts and works into the world, where the left pictures a more receptive nature—he now fulfills the deeds of the Ground of Creation—Creation continues now under his regency and guidance. The Son has assumed the primary leadership for the continuation of the Creation. And the Son has come to help us rightly take up our role as human beings as helpers there. In our newly named era in human and earthly history, the Anthropocene, this has become abundantly clear: what we do determines the very fate of the earth and our own future.
Ascension is the festival in which the one born at Christmas, who is baptized at Epiphany 30 years later, who walks into the depths of our humanity in his Passion for us and who dies on the Cross, who liberates the Dead and overcomes Death itself at Easter, who teaches the disciples about the Kingdom of God which has drawn near—he now expands himself to encompass the whole of the earth as his new body, and invites us to work in his name, and help make heaven alive on earth, to fulfill the work of the divine here on earth.
We join with him in raising our thoughts, our feelings, our devotion to the healing of the rift between spirit and matter, within us, between us. We can every day practice Ascension, to create of the daily course of our lives elevated moments in service of the heavenly forces working—or longing to work—on earth.