‘Why do you stand there looking up to heaven?’
It’s no wonder the disciples were caught staring up at the place where their friend and teacher and Lord had bid them farewell, but the angels are right to point the disciples back to the world – we are not to be so heavenly that we are of no earthly use.
It seems to me that the ascension is, above all, a feast of the body of Christ. It’s the day when we remember the departure back to heaven of Jesus’ earthly, incarnate form, the day when his presence stopped being particular (tied to a specific time and place and material form) and started to be universal – present to all times and places ‘even to the ending of the age’ (Mt 28.20).
But the ascension is but one moment of this process of the particular becoming universal. At the Last supper Jesus explained his own body in terms of bread and wine, which he then broke, poured out, and distributed. On the cross the his actual body was broken and his blood flowed. At the resurrection his body was both physically real (which he proved by eating and drinking) yet also able to go unrecognised and walk through locked doors (a step up, perhaps, from walking on water?). Now, at his ascension, that physical body disappears, and in its place we find a group of bewildered disciples left with the task of carrying on Jesus’ work.
By the time St Paul started writing his letters to the early church, he had started calling the christian community ‘The Body of Christ’ – something which we still do, and to which we continue to aspire. There was one final thing that needed to happen before those early Christians could assume the role as Christ’s new body on earth: that body had to receive the Holy Spirit, the breath of life, which we can read about in the story of Pentecost (Acts 2) or indeed in the quieter version in John’s gospel where the risen Christ breathes his Spirit on his friends in the upper room.
So during the course of this process, the Body of Christ which begun as the incarnate Son of God, born as a baby in Bethlehem, growing up as a carpenter’s son in Nazareth, being baptised and undertaking a three-year ministry of preaching, healing and teaching, and culminating the cross and resurrection – that Body of Christ is transformed into the Church – established by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit to continue his work in co-operation with God. Thus, Jesus’ particular body (limited to one time and one place, two thousand years ago) becomes universal, filling the whole world, and for all time.
We talk about the universal church, but really is that what we mean? In the end, to be true to the Christ whose body we try to be, we come full circle: in the Church, the body of Christ becomes not, after all, merely ‘general’ or ‘universal’ but particular again, incarnate in the individuals and christian communities in which the Holy Spirit dwells. If we are, in Teresa of Avila’s words, “Christ’s hands with which he blesses people now” then our action in the world is particular, in the places where we find ourselves. The church may fill the world, but if it is truly to be the Body of Christ, then it cannot be ‘general’ but must always be active in the places where it finds itself. If we are the Body of Christ then we must be incarnate, too – through the ascension we will always have a heavenly life, but here and now our calling is to continue, in his name, the work that Christ began.