The phrase 'He ascended into heaven' trips off the tongue as we say the Creed. I suggest, though, that we rarely think much about it. The Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord, and the subsequent coming of the Holy Spirit, these we talk about a great deal, and not just during Lent, Easter and Pentecost. The Ascension is much less mentioned.
Luke tells us today that the disciples worshipped Jesus at the Ascension, as he was taken from them. John's Gospel records, in the passage we read on the second Sunday of Easter, that Thomas worshipped Jesus after he had shown Thomas his wounded hands, side and feet. The risen Jesus for both evangelists is not simply a human being raised from the dead. After all, their faith and our faith is that all human beings will rise from the dead at the end of time, on the great day of resurrection and reward. But both Luke and John record that Jesus is worshipped by the disciples. Jesus, then, is not only the first-fruits of the general resurrection of the dead. He is indeed God.
The Ascension then completes the cycle of the Incarnation. The eternal Word became flesh in Mary's womb. The angels told the shepherds news of great joy, that the Saviour would be wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger. Now that same Saviour departs from them and is carried up to heaven. The disciples worship him and return to Jerusalem with great joy.
Joy at the beginning of Luke's gospel and joy at the end. Joy at the Incarnation and joy at the Ascension. But is joy characteristic of our life and our living out of the gospel?
First we must work out what we mean by joy. Joy involves celebrating what is good in the present and having hope for what is good in the future. The usual opposite to joy is being miserable. If we are miserable or down-hearted then we concentrate on what is bad currently, and do not have hope for the future. If all we can think of is bad, whether bad for our health, bad for our friends, bad for our human flourishing or simply bad for our wealth, then we will not have joy.
Clearly there are times when our possessions are stolen, or we are ill, or our loved ones die. Then is not the time for radiant smiles and clapping our hands. If deep down we are joyful though, we will still be glad for whatever good remains for us during such tragic situations, particularly our relationships with our family and friends, but also our integrity as a human being. Deep down we trust in God's mercy and love, and in the goodness of creation.
Many people find themselves limited by setbacks, by illness or lack of integrity, not being able to work or to escape oppressive situations. Our response to the Ascension in these sorts of situations must start by recognizing oppression as oppression, recognizing illness as limiting, recognizing that integrity has been compromised. We are not to deny these earthly realities. But we carry on. This earth-bound reality is not all. Forgiveness is possible, integrity before God can be restored, human dignity can be lived out without formal paid work, and so on. Some oppressive situations we cannot change by ourselves but we can work to change them, often with others, sometimes at great risk to ourselves.
Joy is liberating. It gives us the possibility of dreaming what a fully human life might be like. What is it like to be people of integrity? What is it like not to fear unemployment or sickness? What is it like not to fear death? Joy involves hope. We have hope because Jesus is ascended into heaven, and where he has gone we hope to follow. Even when our loved ones die, we have a choice. Our Christian way involves hope, hope that in God's mercy they will join our ascended Lord in heaven. In this hope we can live lives of integrity parted from them here on earth, but hoping to join them after our death. The alternative is to despair of the goodness of life and of love.