“You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:48)
If we look up at the sky on a clear night, what can we see? The moon, probably. Perhaps
a bright star. Maybe patterns in stars, the constellations. Orion with his belt,
three stars in a row. The Plough. The signs of the zodiac. If we have lived in the
same place for a while, these patterns in the sky become familiar, changing with
the seasons, but reassuringly there above us, a reminder of our safe place in the
So it can come as something of a shock to remember that they are not actually there,
not as we see them. The light from the stars takes many years to reach the earth.
We see the stars as they were long ago, not as they are now. And although they may
look identical to us, some of the stars are much further away than others. The shapes
and patterns that we see are only there because of where we are standing. From another
angle they would look completely different. We look up and make meaning for ourselves.
When we look up and realise that, our world tilts. We catch a glimpse of the endless
possibilities for shapes and patterns in the universe. Our perspective is not fixed
Sometimes things happen that seem to tilt the world on its axis, to make the familiar
patterns shift, and something new emerge. Such an event is the ascension of Jesus.
What exactly did the disciples see that first Ascension Day? Luke has two goes at
describing it, at the end of his Gospel and again at the beginning of Acts. “Jesus
withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven,” says the Gospel. The version in
Acts says, “He was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.” The stories
are clear that Jesus was there and then he wasn’t. They imply that there’s a certain
amount of mystery about what happened. The description is restrained, and wisely
so. If we think too hard about the ascension, it is easy to end up with a slightly
ridiculous picture. Jesus zooms heavenward as if jet- propelled; two feet are all
that can be seen poking out of the bottom of a cloud.
But Luke helps us focus our attention elsewhere. The emphasis in the stories is on
the reaction of the disciples. Something happens to them. Their world changes.
The disciples’ adventure with Jesus had seemed to come to an end. They had followed
him as he taught and healed, and had hoped for great things – the renewal of their
faith, the freedom of their nation, a new start for their people. Then Jesus was
arrested and executed, and it was all over. The disciples were faced with the prospect
of going back to their homes and their trades, as if nothing had happened. Israel
was not free. God had not renewed his people. Everything was as before.
But then came the resurrection. Suddenly all the possibilities were opened up again.
It took a while for the disciples to realise that this time it would not be Jesus
doing the preaching and teaching and healing, but them. For a short time they had
Jesus around, while they got used to the idea of the future mission, but then it
was over to them. And that is what the ascension is. It is the handing over. Jesus
is not dead, but nor is he physically present. Now it is the turn of human beings
to bring God’s kingdom in.
“Why do you stand looking up?” the angel asks the disciples. They turn their gaze
away from the sky. Their perspective shifts. They stop looking at the sky and instead
look towards the world that needs to hear the good news. They stop looking to Jesus
to do the work of the kingdom, and realise they need to look to themselves. It looks
different now. The death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus have changed their
standpoint. The pattern of the universe has shifted.
The ascension of Christ tilts the universe for us. It gives us a fresh perspective,
a new shape and meaning to the world. Jesus has taken our humanity to God. He has
handed over his mission to human beings. The divisions between divine and human,
between heaven and earth have been blurred. With the disciples, we stop looking up
to heaven, waiting for a divine Jesus to come and rescue us. Instead we focus our
gaze towards our world, looking for God there, and seeking to play our part in the
establishment of God’s kingdom.
Reverend Canon Stuart Ansell