Today is Ascension Day. Today we remember the day when Jesus’ disciples saw him for the last time, when, having blessed them, he turned and walked into the cloud. Anyone who has walked in the mountains may be familiar with such a phenomenon. While Christians affirm that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, from where he will return, ‘how?’ questions – which cannot be answered – are a distraction from the more important question, ‘so?’
This event is so important to the understanding of the early Church that it is recounted in the last chapter of the first volume of (the Gospel according to) Luke-Acts (of the Apostles) and again in the first chapter of the second volume: Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11. It is, in other words, a hinge-point in history. Why?
Some six hundred years before Jesus, the nobility of Jerusalem was living in exile, having been deposed and carried away in humiliation by the Babylonian Empire. Some of this ruling class had been re-trained and appointed to administrative posts within the Babylonian Empire; one such man being Daniel. On one occasion, Daniel had a dream (recorded in Daniel 7:1-28) of a succession of ‘beasts’ coming out of the ‘sea’ – the ‘sea’ symbolising chaos, and the fantastical ‘beasts’ symbolising empires (think the lion and unicorn symbolising the British Empire). The dream relates to a series of empires rising up and ruling over the people of Judah. But the dream continues, with a ‘son of man’ – that is, human being – presented before God in the clouds, to whom God gives dominion over all empires, for all time. After suffering, God’s people will be restored, and return under a king who will establish them for ever.
Jesus’ departure, then, is presented as the fulfilment of Daniel’s dream: Jesus is the human being presented before God on the clouds, and made king to reign over all the peoples as the king of God’s chosen people – God’s chosen people not being the Jewish nation by natural descent, but, now, the faithful community of the Church, soon to expand to include the Gentiles.
But we haven’t yet addressed the ‘so?’ question.
In the first account of the ascension, Luke records Jesus ‘opening their minds to understand the scriptures’, that understanding culminating ‘that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his [Jesus, the king in the clouds] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’ [emphasis mine]
In other words, the judgement that the exalted human passes on all human empire-building is this:
‘Come home; all is forgiven.’
That is staggering. Not least because the ruling Empire of the day had put this human being to death in a display of their power, just forty-two days before.
Today is Ascension Day.
What is the implication of this day for those who look to Jesus in a highly politicised world of empire-building?
What are the implications for us when we see our government make decisions that – intentionally or otherwise - oppress the weakest people in our society?
To declare to power, ‘Come home; all is forgiven’ does not equate to saying, what you are doing doesn’t matter; does not equate to saying that empire is good and not evil. To embrace and forgive is not the same as to condone.
But it is far harder than to shake the fist.
Harder, and perhaps, ultimately, more transformative.
Whether we see such transformation or not, Ascension Day is the Church’s political model.