For Ascension, here is an excerpt from the chapter about the Ascension in my book The Quest for the Creed.
We say “What goes up must come down,” but if that which is goes up must come down, then according to the divine cosmic principles (which stand all expectations on their head) then what comes down must go up. That is to say that what is lowly will be exalted and what is humble will be lifted high. Just as the greatest (according to the divine economy) must come down, so the lowest must rise up.
This suddenly gives a new perspective on an old story. We have a paradigm shift. We see reality in a new way. When we think of Jesus Christ rising from the tomb we understand that it is not so strange after all. It is simply the way things work in that other realm. We see that, for him, resurrection is part of the natural/supernatural order of being. He went down into death. That means he must rise up into life. It’s as natural as water flowing downhill, but also as natural as water being evaporated. What went down must go up. God came down to take the form of a human being. Therefore he must rise up again into the heavenly realm. It’s as simple as a sunrise. What goes up must come down? No. What comes down must go up.
It is this topsy turvy view of reality to which the Ascension of Christ introduces us to. Just as the Ascension reverses the laws of gravity, so it reverses all the expectations we had of reality. Here we say a resurrected person went up to heaven, and we are supposed to believe it really happened. There is something radical and revolutionary to this. It should be seismic in it’s alteration of our perceptions of reality, and yet we yawn and scratch and wonder what is for lunch.
The Ascension introduces us to a frightening and delightful new perspective of what we consider ‘reality’, and we don’t have eyes to see it. We’re blinded by familiarity with a religious story which we’ve seen in stained glass windows and illustrated Sunday School books; when what we are faced with is an altered perception which should be as disturbing and disconcerting as one of those episodes of ‘The Twilight Zone’ that kept us awake and pondering.
Those who like fairy tales should love the story of the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven. Like Dorothy, who is swept up by a cyclone to Oz, Jesus floats up and disappears up into what must be a Technicolor heaven. Fantasy tales are full of this sort of thing. Peter Pan flies away to Neverland; Mary Poppins is whisked away when the wind changes, and the space ship comes to carry E.T. home to his peaceful planet.
It is easy enough to dismiss the Ascension story as a piece of first century science fiction. Jesus had to go somewhere after he rose from the dead so the first century Isaac Asimov said, “I know. Let’s beam him up. Sounds cool.” But it has the awful whiff of a deux ex machina ending, except in reverse. There the god was cranked down from the theatre rafters to resolve the plot and bring a happy ending. Here the God is cranked up from the stage to disappear in a cloud of glory and live happily ever after. We can almost see the scenery shudder and catch a glimpse of the dry ice machine. It is easy enough to see the similarities of the Ascension to fairy tales and Broadway shows and assume that since the fairy stories are untrue that the Ascension is also untrue. But what if it is the other way around? We think the Ascension story is untrue because we have heard similar stories that we know are fantasy. But if the Ascension actually happened as it was reported, then it might be a kind of fulfillment of the other stories. In other words, instead of the false stories making every similar story false, the one true story might make all the similar stories true.
Think, for example of all the fantasy stories about princesses marrying handsome princes despite all the odds. Then when a real girl finds true love and marries the man of her dreams does she not make all the fantasy stories come true? When the man is transformed by her radiant and faithful love from a disgusting beast into a reasonably civilized husband and father have the couple not made all the beauty and the beast stories come true?
In a similar way, when a hero really does, in a unique incident, ascend into heaven he validates all those stories where the hero rises up, and flies away home. So rather than the fantasy stories making the gospel story untrue, it could be that the gospel story makes all the fantasy stories true. But for this to be the case we have to imagine in what way such an unbelievable story might actually have happened.
Can we even begin to believe that Jesus Christ was “beamed up” into heaven? It depends on your point of view. Not long ago the news reported the first steps being taken towards teleportation. Can we be so credulous as to really accept that Jesus floated up into the air and disappeared from their sight? Why not? Levitation is well documented in the annals of mysticism. In fact, it is one of the more common and most reliably witnessed of the supernatural phenomena. Lots of people saw Saint Teresa of Avila levitate, and Saint Joseph Cupertino was so adept at levitation that he was eventually named patron saint of pilots and airline hostesses. Levitation is not even that impressive amongst those who believe. When Saint Thomas Aquinas was summoned to witness the remarkable case of a nun floating he simply remarked, “I didn’t know nuns wore such big boots.” Mystics of other religions have also been observed to defy the normal laws of gravity, fakirs float, poltergeists make heavy objects fly through the air, and the demon possessed are known to both roar and soar.
I point this out, not to say that the Ascension was simply a case of teleportation or levitation, but to embarrass the empiricists among us. The empiricist says he will only believe something that can be seen with his own eyes or verified by credible eyewitnesses. Then when credible eyewitnesses report that a saint has levitated or that they have seen a demon possessed person thrown across the room by some malevolent force, the empiricist denies that it happened. So he doesn’t believe eyewitnesses after all. He believes his prejudices. When Saint Thomas Aquinas saw the levitating nun he also saw the joke, and that’s one of the delightful things about levitation stories. The Ascension is much more important than a simple case of levitation, but the same sense of joie de vivre is there, and the Ascension, like levitation, reminds us that the law of gravity is sometimes broken by levity.
So if gravity is sometimes defied in a supernatural way, how might this make us reconsider the Ascension of Jesus Christ from the earth? The account given in the New Testament says he floated up into the clouds, and eventually faded from sight. This is more than levitation. He didn’t just go up and come down. He went up, then he disappeared. This sounds unbelievable, but isn’t this what we would expect if someone were to be taken physically from the material realm into the spiritual realm? Even if we think this is where Jesus went, the whole story sounds like “going to the spiritual realm” meant that he became less physical. Most of us have this annoying tendency to spiritualize such stories and make them ghostly, ethereal and weird. But what if it is the other way around? What if Jesus did not become less physical but more physical? What if he disappeared because he eventually went into another realm which is not less real, but more real?
How can this be? Am I simply spinning theories and being fanciful? No. I’m serious, and as usual, everything depends on our starting point of view. We naturally assume that this physical world is the real, solid and substantial realm while the spiritual realm is ethereal, wispy, transparent and therefore less real. But who is to say which is more real—the invisible realm or the visible realm? Most people think the world of spirits is ethereal while the physical world is solid; but what if it is exactly the other way around? Let’s imagine Aunt Susan said she saw an angel pass through a brick wall. We would assume that the angel was ethereal and “unreal” because we assume the brick wall is solid. But what if angels are more solid and eternal than brick walls? If they are, then it is the wall that is flimsy and insubstantial.
How do we know which one passed through the other? Physics tells us what we consider solid matter is mostly air. What if the angels (who we think of as creatures of air) are, in fact, made of some matter more dense and solid than the brick wall? Then the angel may have passed through the brick wall as a man passes through a bank of fog. If you didn’t know the nature of fog or a human being, and you witnessed a man step through a bank of fog wouldn’t it be easy to believe that he was ethereal and the fog solid?
Can we rely on our perceptions to tell us what is real and unreal? The physicists tell us that material reality behaves in very strange and contradictory ways, and the physicians tell us that our senses are very easily fooled. If the physical world is more fickle than we thought, and if our eyes and ears cannot always be trusted, perhaps the more trustworthy world is the one that cannot be seen and heard. Saint Paul agrees with Plato that the invisible things are more permanent than the visible. If this is the case, then the person who believes in the reality of the spiritual dimension may be more of a realist than the Man from Missouri. Similarly, if this whole material world is compacted from dust, air and water, and if it will eventually return to dust and ash, then the stout materialist is the one who trusts in the ephemeral.
To return to the story of the Ascension, it could be that while the disciples saw Jesus vaporize into the spiritual realm, he in fact, passed through a “cloud of fog” into a realm which was not less solid and real than this one, but more solid and real. From his point of view he was leaving the fuzzy, unreal world behind and entering into a world that is far more real, colorful, vibrant and alive than this world. What if all the lurid religious art with its ghastly colors and vivid detail points to some reality we hadn’t counted on? What if heaven is as bright, colorful and flamboyant as a Mardi Gras parade, an amusement park or a Hindu festival? If this is so, then when Jesus went from this world to the next he was simply leaving a vague shadow world to step into a world where the light is like crystal and each grain of dust is as hard and beautiful as diamonds.
If this is so, then the story of the Ascension teaches us several things about the relationship between this spiritual world and this physical world. First of all, there is commerce between the two worlds. Plato thought the spiritual beings were able to assume physical forms. But if that world is more real, then for them to take a physical form would require them to slow down to enter a kind of submarine world. If you like, for them to become physical is to wade through a world that is thick and cumbersome, dark and cold. For them to take human form would be like us having to wade through icy water up to our necks.
But if the door between the worlds is open, and spiritual beings are able to make themselves visible in physical form, it would follow that after death, human beings might be able to enter that spiritual realm. However, humans are physical beings. Physicality is an intrinsic part of our nature. Our bodies aren’t shells for our souls. They are an indivisible part of our souls. Therefore human beings must enter the spiritual realm in some physical sense. They don’t become angels or ghosts; instead their physicalness becomes spiritualized. It is not done away with; it is transformed to a higher plane of material reality. If this is so, then the Ascension shows this very process happening. Jesus didn’t just become a disembodied spirit. He didn’t turn into a ghost, he became a spiritualized physical being.
The Ascension was a unique event because it was a first in human history. When Jesus was “taken up into heaven” what really happened was that the door swung open for physical humanity to be divinized. By this action the physical was actually brought into heaven and a physical dimension was introduced to the spiritual realm.
That is why Saint Paul insists that (despite the contradictions and seeming absurdities) when we die and are resurrected that we shall have what he calls a “resurrection body.” The actual physical components will not be reconstituted from dust and ash, but the physical dimension to our souls will live on. It is difficult to imagine this without imagining that we shall be like ghosts. Turn that on its head by imagining that what we are now is ghostly compared to what we shall be. Those “resurrection bodies” we are promised will be more real, more youthful, more eternal and more beautiful than we can ever imagine, and they will be so much more real than these bodies that they will be to these bodies as a real landscape is to a black and white photograph of the scene.
Do we have trouble imagining such things? I don’t know why. We accept the miracles of technology every day, but if someone had told our grandparents that we could feed a piece of paper into a machine in Peru which would then turn it into a series of bleeps which were transmitted millions of miles to a little machine spinning in space, only to bounce back to another machine in Pennsylvania, which then printed the image onto another piece of paper they would think we were dangerously mad dreamers. If we told our grandparents that a machine the size of a notebook would transmit the text of a book from California to Karachi in the time it takes me to blink they would ridicule such fantasies.
So why can we not imagine that similarly “unbelievable” things might be possible in that last frontier—the one between the physical and the spiritual realms? The person of faith stands on the edge of these possibilities and has room to muse, room to surmise and room to theorize. Anything is possible after all, and it is up to our imagination to try to visualize what it all means, and what kind of world is on the other side. Suddenly the person of faith is not an antique leftover of a bygone age, but the dreamer on the cutting edge. Suddenly it is the dull empiricist who seems like the Luddite, the Mennonite and the Antiquarian.
The ascension simply tells me that it the world is open ended, and I can expect the unexpected. Furthermore, it might happen to me. I can be transformed, I can have commerce with the spiritual world. I can make contact, and one day make that same journey from what seems to be real to a reality that is more hard and glorious than I could ever imagine. Furthermore, that reality is not some dreamy ectoplasmic existence. It is hard and real and delightful. Do we think that these physical bodies give us pleasure? We haven’t yet experienced pleasure. What we have had here is merely a glimpse of the glory that is to come. The most exquisite music here is only a whisper of the music of that greater reality. When you begin to catch a glimpse of this other country the ancient words ring true, and the heart lifts to think that it really may be so that eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived of such glories that await us.
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