Ascension Day may not mean much to you. It may seem to be one of those arcane theological observances that only a seminarian could love. It is the Thursday, 40 days after Easter, when Jesus appeared to his disciples bodily for the last time, and “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” It sounds very ephemeral and fantastical really.
But it is really about transformation, as St. Paul makes clear. Jesus’ earthly body is withdrawn, so that we can become the Body of Christ, and individually, members of it. This transformation will be completed on Pentecost (Sunday, June 4), when the Holy Spirit fills the crowd with passion and power to be God’s people. The Body of Christ goes from being one person to being many – all of us who seek to follow Jesus.
Paul saw the Christian endeavor as a communal effort, not a bunch of individual free agents. Richard Rohr writes,
Paul had a concrete missionary strategy of building living communities able to produce a visible and believable message. Yet for centuries we’ve interpreted his message as if he is speaking about individuals being privately “saved.” This has made Paul seem more like a mere moralist than the mystic he is. Mystics tend to see things in wholes rather than getting preoccupied with the parts.
So, Ascension Day is the beginning of transformation: from an individual Messiah to the Body of Christ, from an individualized understanding of salvation to a communal sense of “we’re all in this together.” This transformation is completed at Pentecost, and then the Church is set loose on the world – to turn it upside down! JBM