The Ascension always strikes me as an odd story, not because Jesus returned to heaven, but because of how he does it. I mean, it’s a strange image, Jesus levitating into the sky while the disciples watch. I’m not sure I have any great insight to share, but a couple of thoughts struck me when rereading the passage today…
The first is that there seems to be references to other passages coded into this story of Jesus saying goodbye to the disciples. After all, another major figure was taken up to heaven while his protege watched – Elijah was snatched away by a chariot of fire, which is perhaps significant because references to Elijah keep cropping up throughout the ministry of Jesus.
The interesting thing is that Elijah’s being taken to heaven is as much a rite of passage for his successor, Elisha, who was primed to take over the mission. Which is pretty much the case for the disciples, who’ve been told to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit.
(It’s also notable that, while Elijah goes to heaven in a chariot of fire, Jesus goes under his own steam. He goes home himself, not waiting to be collected, which perhaps says something about relative power levels…)
And, like the disciples, a group of Elijah’s friends spend a lot of time looking for him rather than getting on with things. In that case it’s Elisha who tells them it’s futile; here it’s two men in white.
And where have two men in white cropped up before? At the empty tomb of Jesus forty days earlier, where they asked why Jesus’s followers are looking for the living amongst the dead. I like to think it’s the same guys here: “Okay, now why are you looking into the sky?!” Jesus has moved on. You’ve got to do the same.
Then there’s the cloud. Clouds symbolise God’s presence – like at the Transfiguration, or when the Ten Commandments were given to Israel. Here it’s important to note that, while Jesus has gone, God’s power is still active. That’s going to become clearer at Pentecost, but the idea is here too.
And that’s the message of Ascension Day – not so much a full stop, but a passing of the baton. From Jesus to the Holy Spirit, from Jesus to the church. It’s a reminder that God will be with us always, and even though things may change dramatically, he’s still there.