Ascension

The transfer of the feast of the Ascension of Christ from "Ascension Thursday" (40 days after Easter) to today (7th Sunday of Easter or the Sunday before Pentecost) perhaps illustrates, within the Church, the same crisis of belief that has long existed in the outside, "secular" world ‑‑ a crisis that was best demonstrated by Russia's first Cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin who reported, upon return from the first manned earth‑orbit, that he'd looked all around him and no place could see God or Jesus up there above the clouds.

       Indeed, the gospels themselves seem rather confused when it comes to locating this event in time and space. It is only Luke who gives us the forty days time period, and he, contrary to Matthew, who locates the event "on a mountain in Galilee", tells us that it took place out near the village of Bethany just East of Jerusalem. Mark's Gospel originally seems to have had no reference to the Ascension at all, with its later‑on added ending giving us no location ‑‑ which would seem to indicate that this later editor already was aware of the discrepancy between Matthew and Luke. And John's gospel completely ignores the whole episode.

       It seems to me that what we are up against, as believers, however, is not so much a conflict over historical details as a crisis of belief induced by our failure to understand the symbolic nature of the language of faith. We are, very much, like those two‑dimensional creatures that the popular science books talk about when trying to explain Einstein's theory of relativity in terms of a three dimensional universe. We still speak of heaven as "up" (and of hell as "down") and of Jesus as "sitting on the right hand of the Father" where the reality is in another dimension entirely or more exactly beyond the realm or categories of space‑time.

       And yet, for all that, I do not think that this two‑dimensional language is without value or deep significance ‑‑ even if, for no other reason, it still speaks so eloquently of our own human needs. Many, for example, have pointed out that what our religious sense, especially here in America, so sorely lacks is a true sense of "transcendence", that is, that American religion has become "horizontalized" into doing good things for people or at most showing up on Sundays for church. As a result, many people have been drawn to "New Age" cults, many of them heavily influences by ancient oriental spiritualities which seem to them, at least, to promise a more directly vertical "ascent" to divinity through mysticism and other inward‑turning techniques. On the other hand, equally more conservative Christians seem equally upset with those liberal Christians who continually challenge them to prove the sincerity of their belief by more than just "good works" or "charity", but by a radical transformation of society into the " kingdom of God" on earth.

       All this proves, I think, the wisdom of contained in the symbolism of the Cross. Just as the cross is made up of the intersection of two members, a vertical post and a horizontal beam, so too Christianity must contain, and hold in balance, two dimensions. We must retain that "ascensional" direction that characterizes all genuine religion. Otherwise we will have earned the scorn of those who look for something more out of life. But on the other hand, we must also retain a strong "horizontal" sense of out‑reach and service to others, the strong conviction that in each human being we meet we also our brother or sister in Christ. Without that latter, Christianity itself will deserve the criticisms that it has sometimes so justly deserved as merely preaching "a pie in the sky when you die" or having become, as so many other religions too often have, an "escape‑hatch from the world."

       This does not mean that individual vocations or callings may not differ greatly within the dimensions illustrated by the Cross. When Christ "ascended", St. Paul tells us, he showered upon earth a great variety of gifts. Some he tells us, will be apostles, others teachers, still others "miracle‑workers" or healers, some Just down-to‑earth "administrators" (just reviewing some of the functions evident in the structure of the early church). So too today in "christianized" society (or at least in what is left of it). Each of us will be called by our talents and inclinations to a different role in life. But still, we need to always keep in mind these two dimensions of our life here in the world. Without the interaction between both of them, our life will have turned out to be only one‑dimensional, and on that score, woefully incomplete.

R.W. Kropf    5/27/20001                                     Ascent.doc     01-05-27.html