I'm going to be up front about this: Ascension Day has always been one of those festival days that never quite made sense to me. Of course, I knew the story---for forty days, the resurrected Jesus made appearances to the disciples and then on the fortieth, he ascended to the clouds, taken from their sight. (Acts chapter one has one succinct telling.) But for me, the ascension is more difficult to grasp than the resurrection.
What do I make of this?
So I googled. Specifically, I googled "Orthodox view of Ascension Day." I turned to the Orthodox on this matter because their view tends to be liturgical as much as literal or symbolic. I've noticed that they talk about festivals in terms of what hymns are assigned for the day. I can get on board with that.
This page, I thought, was a very good, succinct explanation of their Ascension Day understanding.
There is, of course, the number 40, which tends to connote a a time of fulfillment. It's a recurring number in the Bible. The ascension fulfills the Risen Christ's purpose in one sort of way.
But there's something in their understanding of the physical Jesus ascending that acts as a sort of final bridge between our physical lives and heavenly existence. We will be assumed in our "spiritual bodies" (as Paul talks about the resurrected body) into the physics-defying reality that Jesus might call the Reign of God. We are asked to remember that the Jesus who ascends is also always with us. It becomes the final act of the Incarnation while giving us a preview of who we will eventually become. Because Jesus has gone ahead to "prepare a place for us," we can be assured that our resurrection body will be like his.
And from that moment on, no one experienced the Risen Christ as a fish-grilling, locked-room-appearing, "put your finger here, Thomas," sort of body. The Jesus that appears after this, as on the Damascus road to Saul/Paul, appears as blinding light.
I suppose that's the thing about Ascension Day. The Jesus who rose from the dead, ascends (which is problematic for those of us who dislike think of "heaven above" sort of hierarchy, but it's the language we have) in this physics-defying body, in some way still has a body "at the right hand of the Father" and still interacts with humanity.
And that last bit is something I do believe, the thing that makes me appear a bit crazy to atheist friends. I've never had the vision of light thing, but Paul is not the last to report such things. I knew a woman in seminary who reported something very similar to Paul's story. She wasn't a Christian, wanted nothing to do with Christianity, and was blinded by a light that told her its name was Jesus and for her to follow. She'd never read the New Testament before that and was surprised by Paul's story when she learned it. And so I'm left to believe that Jesus doesn't often put on a light show for people like me, who have grown up praying to him, but to people whose attention he needs to get.
Or something. That last paragraph wasn't really planned.
Anyway. What to make of Ascension Day? Being the one who is always going on about incarnational theology, I will think of the transformed and fully transfigured bodies that will, at the end of the age defy physics. I will try to find hymns to have in my earbuds at work that are appropriate for the day. I may even set aside my generally "low christology" Jesus and allow my mind to wander to the triumphant Christ in glory.
What I will not lose sight of, I hope, is that Jesus' ascension, however I want to think about it---literally, symbolically, mythologically, liturgically---is another sign of:
1. Incarnation---the importance of our flesh, inseparable in our identity from our spirit
2. The Reign of God here, now, among us, not in some far off heaven, if we'll only turn to see it.
3. Christ is with us always, whether we put our finger in a wound or are blinded by light or something in between.
Alleluia. Christ is Risen and rises still.