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strangely warmed
By Andrew Rumsey
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Who soared through the air?
May 2002

If, like me, your Christian outlook was partly shaped by songs from the 1960s chorus book Youth Praise, you may have problems with Ascensiontide, celebrated this week in the more discerning churches. The tune, "Who soared through the air? (Only Jesus)" – amusingly dubbed "the superman song" by larky youth fellowships everywhere – left the impression that Our Lord's Ascension was notable chiefly for revealing his ability to tear through the skies in the manner popularized by Marvel Comic heroes.

Unfortunately, theological college rather reinforced this view. Here, Ascension Day was marked by an outdoor service memorable, I must also relate, for featuring the only sermon where I have heard the preacher to say "and ninthly…". Once we had been urged to "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord", three huge rockets were lit and launched screaming into the heavens, therein to explode with a colourful pop (provoking the impromptu liturgical bidding "oooh" from the minister, to which we correctly responded "aaah").

Quite how this display evoked the trajectory of Christ to the right hand of the Father remained a mystery. All in all, Ascension Day seemed a day for staying safely indoors and keeping one's pets in a tin box.

But, as with Jesus' miracles, if we focus on the spectacle of his ascension we are likely to miss its point. No doubt there are indeed nine of these, but I shall trouble you with but two – which, for the sake of simplicity, let us call "up there" and "down here".

Note first that the Gospel writers seem at pains to stress that Christ's resurrection appearances were neither optical illusion nor ghostly apparition. Note this especially if the ascension begins to sound like a David Copperfield-style magic feat: an impression which, to be fair, the NIV Bible doesn't exactly discourage with drum-roll lines like "before their very eyes" in Acts chapter 1.

No, there is a reality, a physicality about it all – Christ eats with his friends, allows them to touch him and so on. He has a risen body, and it is this body which is "taken up into heaven" as Luke describes it. The Lord doesn't discard his humanness as if it were a pair of muddy boots to be left by the door – in him healed, human life is ushered in to sit at the symbolic place of highest honour and authority – God's right hand. God with us becomes us with God, thus endowing earthly life with a wonderful sacredness and dignity.

Which brings us to the "down here" point. In the Acts account, we are given the lovely image of the disciples left gawping into the sky, whereupon some public-spirited angels appear in fluorescent waistcoats to marshall them off. They don't quite say, "come on now lads, show's over", but they do ask them to kindly not gape upwards like that, for Christ will return in the same way he has gone – a reassuring word, no doubt, unless you subscribe to the skyrocket interpretation, in which case we really had better dash for cover.

Both the arrival and departure of Jesus on and from this earth are thus heralded and, like theme music and credits to a film, serve to highlight the events in between, as if to say, this is where you need to concentrate. Little, local, earthly life is the place where we meet God – the ascension leaves the believer not with their head in the clouds but brought firmly down to earth.

Jesus has gone, but bound up with his leaving is the promise of the Holy Spirit – the way in which the presence of God remains with us. Remembering this is extremely helpful on all sorts of occasions when people simply need to know where Jesus is – from wide-eyed Sunday school pupils asking whether, if Jesus is everywhere, he is also in their pyjamas, to wild-eyed brethren who insist on "being Jesus" to everyone they meet.

I know what they mean, but I sometimes want to respond to this with that Bob Dylan lyric from Bringing it all Back Home: "I said, 'you know, they refused Jesus too', and he said, 'you're not him'."

We're not him – but we are with him in a quite remarkable way. Our life is hid with Christ "up there" where he intercedes for us before the Heavenly Father; his life is hid with us "down here" by the Spirit. The rocket analogy – and some popular theology – tends to suggest the opposite, the "spiritual" life being released into orbit while the human husk burns off and drifts back to earth.

Perhaps what's needed is a different choice of firework: my advice is light a sparkler for Ascension – make a moment fizz with wonder and look up to see your name lit in glory.
strangely warmed
Strangely Warmed by Andrew Rumsey is now available as a book.
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