The Flying Messiah
The significance of “he ascended into heaven” for our lives
By Brian Caulfield, FFG Editor
“The Ascension is the Easter mystery entering eternity.”
“I’ll play Jesus, but don’t ask me to fly.”
These two quotes I heard spoken in the same week more than 20 years ago.
The first was by a learned theologian explaining the significance of the feast of the Ascension, celebrated 40 days after Easter. The second was voiced by a student in the Religious Ed class I was teaching back then, as he agreed to play Jesus in our parish play but was careful to notify everyone about the limits of his talents. He could not – even with the best of intentions – fly.
Of the two statements, the sixth-grader’s heartfelt protest struck me the most, and made me think about the nature of the Resurrection and the Ascension. When he said that he could not fly, my first reaction was, “Jesus didn’t fly. Where did you get that idea?” But, of course, the young man was only responding to what he had heard read in the Gospels and seen in paintings.
“So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19).
“As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven” (Luke 24:51).
“When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).
Some of the great masters have turned these passages into art, with Jesus lifted up into the clouds – flying, indeed.
Theologians of a certain stripe may tell us that Jesus was “spirited away” or “taken up into God” but grade-schoolers will always ask how Jesus was able to fly. The reasoning is simple: He had a body, he looked up to heaven, he was taken by a cloud – he was flying.
As the feast of the Ascension approaches this Thursday (May 17) – if it is not transferred to Sunday in your diocese – we would do well to contemplate the literal, material truth of our Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension. There are strong trends among theologians to “spiritualize” these events, or make them more psychological states experienced by the Apostles and disciples, rather than earthly, time-framed, historical events.
It seems that to some, the Resurrection is still a scandal of the particular nature of Christ. To say that he rose in the same body that was crucified makes his life, death and Resurrection unique – it cannot be blended with the claims of other religions about spiritual rebirth and renewal that everyone can share. If Jesus rose in the same body born of Mary, then he is the one Lord and Savior, and faith in him is not found in any other religion. We must come to that one body – and receive it in the Eucharist – to know Jesus in fullness.
Jesus rose from the dead with the nail marks healed but still visible. He was not a ghost, as the Apostles first thought, or a spirit that had not flesh. He ate and drank, walked and taught, and when his time on earth had come to an end, after 40 days, he ascended into heaven in that same body.
Yes, as that learned theologian said, the Ascension was the Easter mystery – the body of Christ – entering eternity, so that all of us through the centuries can experience Christ in our lives. But in order to enter eternity, Jesus had to fly.
Blessed feast of the Ascension!