According to the scriptures, Jesus parted from his disciples and was carried up into heaven. He disappeared into a cloud. So much art and folk legend is attached to this almost magical understanding of how Jesus left his friends for the last time. The writer could have said, Jesus went around the corner and was seen no more; however, this is not the way they understood heaven and hell in the first century, so, Jesus went up.
It has been fashionable in recent years to use the balloon-style of worship on Ascension Sunday, and the reasoning goes this way: worship is celebration, balloons mean celebration, children understand this from birthday parties and fairs, and gas-filled balloons go up -- just like Jesus did; therefore, they are symbols of the ascension. However, it just doesn't fit quite right. It seems to trivialize the event, make it like a lesser Easter -- sort of a "P.S. They all lived happily ever after," like the end of an old religious movie, such as The Robe, where the heroes walk out the double doors and into the clouds. The whole thing really gets cloudy -- balloons and clouds and a fade-out. He goes hence and is no more seen.
Jesus' resurrected body made no more appearances within time and space as we know them. Jesus the Incarnate God had come to the end of his task, and his ascension out of this world completed the redemption of humanity. It completed the reconciliation between God and the people which is accomplished by God putting himself at our place at the Incarnation, and by us being put in God's place at the Ascension. During Easter we celebrate Christ's victory over death and in the Ascension we celebrate his entering into heaven; the two are not identical.
The Ascension is the taking of our human nature into the territory where we were never allowed to go. Our created nature -- our kind of people -- were cast out of paradise, and God posted cherubim at the gates to keep us out. Now, with Christ, our status is raised higher than the angels.
The early Christians clearly appreciated the Ascension, and called this day the crown of all Christian feasts. St. Augustine said this festival confirms the grace of all the festivals of the church together, for without the Ascension, the reality of every festival would perish. Unless the savior had ascended into heaven, his nativity would have come to nothing and his passion would have born no fruit for us, and his most holy resurrection would have been worthless.
Some theologians say the cross is the heart of the gospel; others say the resurrection is central. I don't believe we can displace either the cross or the resurrection, but we must celebrate the Ascension for what it is -- include the Ascension as an integral part of our salvation -- all together, almost in one breath, as we say them in the creeds.
There has been a lot in the press this spring about religious groups that look to -- that long for -- the end time, for the coming of the apocalypse. It is as though they believed that if they denied their bodies enough, they would rise into space, into heaven, as a balloon rises when you let go of the string.
On the contrary, the story of the Ascension is very simple. There is no fanfare or grand finale as in pagan myths or epic movies, but only a modest indication of where Jesus was going. He ascended for a short while, until suddenly a cloud hid him from sight. The cloud -- you have met that cloud before -- on Sinai, at the Transfiguration -- is the usual way of telling us that God is present. Jesus returns to God the Father, to a place, up, down, sideways or around the corner of another dimension. And so, the Word that was present at the creation of the world, that became human in the birth of a poor boy in a stable, that conquered death with his rising to life, on this day makes the whole creation new. Amen.