Understanding the Ascension

It’s No Tale of First Century Fiction

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Those who like fairy tales should love the story of the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven. Like Dorothy, who is swept up by a cyclone to Oz, Jesus floats up and disappears up into what must be a Technicolor heaven. Fantasy tales are full of this sort of thing. Peter Pan flies away to Neverland; Mary Poppins is whisked away when the wind changes, and the space ship comes to carry E.T. home to his peaceful planet.

It is easy enough to dismiss the Ascension story as a piece of first century science fiction. Jesus had to go somewhere after he rose from the dead so the first century Isaac Asimov said, “I know. Let’s beam him up. Sounds cool.” But it has the awful whiff of a deux ex machina ending, except in reverse.  There the god was cranked down from the theatre rafters to resolve the plot and bring a happy ending. Here the God is cranked up from the stage to disappear in a cloud of glory and live happily ever after. We can almost see the scenery shudder and catch a glimpse of the dry ice machine. It is easy enough to see the similarities of the Ascension to fairy tales and Broadway shows and assume that since the fairy stories are untrue that the Ascension is also untrue. But what if it is the other way around? We think the Ascension story is untrue because we have heard similar stories that we know are fantasy. But if the Ascension actually happened as it was reported, then it might be a kind of fulfillment of the other stories. In other words, instead of the false stories making every similar story false, the one true story might make all the similar stories true. 

Think, for example of all the fantasy stories about princesses marrying handsome princes despite all the odds. Then when a real girl finds true love and marries the man of her dreams does she not make all the fantasy stories come true? When the man is transformed by her radiant and faithful love from a disgusting beast into a reasonably civilized husband and father have the couple not made all the beauty and the beast stories come true? 

In a similar way, when a hero really does, in a unique incident, ascend into heaven he validates all those stories where the hero rises up, and flies away home. So rather than the fantasy stories making the gospel story untrue, it could be that the gospel story makes all the fantasy stories true. But for this to be the case we have to imagine in what way such an unbelievable story might actually have happened.

Can we even begin to believe that Jesus Christ was “beamed up” into heaven? It depends on your point of view. Not long ago the news reported the first steps being taken towards teleportation. Can we be so credulous as to really accept that Jesus floated up into the air and disappeared from their sight? Why not? Levitation is well documented in the annals of mysticism. In fact, it is one of the more common and most reliably witnessed of the supernatural phenomena. Lots of people saw Saint Teresa of Avila levitate, and Saint Joseph Cupertino was so adept at levitation that he was eventually named patron saint of pilots and airline hostesses. Levitation is not even that impressive amongst those who believe. When Saint Thomas Aquinas was summoned to witness the remarkable case of a nun floating he simply remarked, “I didn’t know nuns wore such big boots.” Mystics of other religions have also been observed to defy the normal laws of gravity, fakirs float, poltergeists make heavy objects fly through the air, and the demon possessed are known to both roar and soar.

I point this out, not to say that the Ascension was simply a case of teleportation or levitation, but to embarrass the empiricists among us. The empiricist says he will only believe something that can be seen with his own eyes or verified by credible eyewitnesses. Then when credible eyewitnesses report that a saint has levitated or that they have seen a demon possessed person thrown across the room by some malevolent force, the empiricist denies that it happened. So he doesn’t believe eyewitnesses after all. He believes his prejudices. When Saint Thomas Aquinas saw the levitating nun he also saw the joke, and that’s one of the delightful things about levitation stories. The Ascension is much more important than a simple case of levitation, but the same sense of joie de vivre is there, and the Ascension, like levitation, reminds us that the law of gravity is sometimes broken by levity. 


Fr Dwight Longenecker is the author of St Benedict and St Therese–the Little Rule and the Little Way. Visit his blog, browse his books, invite him to speak and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com Blog: Standing on My Head. His latest book: The Romance of Religion –Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. This article is an excerpt from his book The Quest for the Creed

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Dwight Longenecker

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