Our Tuesday morning clergy group had the usual Ascension Sunday conversation about whether Jesus’ rising on or through the clouds as he ascended to heaven above is to be taken literally. Did it really happen that way, or is it the memory of things hoped for, perhaps experienced emotionally rather than physically? The story was real enough for me as a small Sunday school child that I had hopes of landing on a cloud in a plane. I was amazed and terribly disappointed when it didn’t happen. So much for Jesus riding a cloud elevator up to heaven.
We recalled the usual condescending put down of the three story universe. A red herring if there ever was one. It’s best just to ignore that silliness. But how to understand it?
I want to suggest that the Ascension was a literal event with metaphorical meaning. I see no reason why the resurrected Jesus could not literally ascend out of sight at the time of his choosing, but I don’t think that means that he went up from earth below to a place called heaven that is somewhere above.
To go up, to rise, to be promoted, thumbs up, the sky’s the limit; all are a part of our ordinary metaphorical language in which the direction of up is understood to have a broad, complex meaning associated with other words such as better, position, status and the like. The same is true for down and its cognates as words associated with demotion, sadness, failure, and so forth. It’s all metaphorical language. It’s why, at least in English, we have to be so careful. If up and down are meant to be taken literally, we must clearly show what it is that goes up or down and where that gets to. Otherwise we can, and frequently do, get into trouble.
The kingdom of God, says Jesus, is already with us, but we cannot appreciate it fully in this life. Whatever and wherever heaven is, some part of it can be an element of our lives now. Yet it seems just out of our reach somewhere above us. Is it really up, above our heads? I don’t think so. It’s just the language we use to express the sure and certain hope of a fuller existence in God’s presence, an existence that transcends bodily death.
With that in mind, it makes perfect sense for Jesus to act out the metaphorical meaning of rising to heaven through the physical act of ascension. Of course none of this makes sense to those unwilling to recognize the resurrection, but that’s another issue.