Ascension Day Antics

Today (Thursday, 13 May) is Ascension Day commemorating Jesus’ resurrected body ascending into heaven (Acts 1:9). To modern, space-age sensibilities, the idea of a divine figure rising bodily into heaven has morphed from the medieval climax of the mystery of Christ into an embarrassment.

Jesus was not the first or the last to ascend to heaven in this way.  The prophet Elijah ascended as well as Enoch, Ezra, Baruch and Levi from various canonical and extra-canonical sources. Roman emperors ensured their historical place as divine rulers by ascension in their historical accounts. But Augustus made sure of this by having his ascension witnessed by Roman Senators. Romulus, the founder of Rome as well as the Greek hero Hercules ascended to heaven after death. Ascension, according to the ancient mind, was evidence of one’s divine origin or of divinity itself.

Of course, T. S. Elliot wrote a poem called “Cats” which was later produced as a Broadway musical. The poem is a retelling of the gospel in the context of a group of junkyard cats. In the concluding scene, the protagonist and savior cat named “Victoria the white cat” (symbolism is not too obvious here) ascends to heaven in a cloud while Mephistopheles Cat (the medieval name for the devil) looks upward.

So this takes us to Ascension Day in Cambridge Massachusetts in 1994 on the quadrangle of the Episcopal Divinity School. The Board of Directors of the school had just emerged on the quad to have lunch. The Thursday community Eucharist at the chapel had just concluded. Students and faculty streamed out the doors of the chapel. All the doors opened towards the center of the quadrangle where students had dressed a life-sized mannequin like Jesus, added long brown hair, and put the body of faux Jesus into a lawn chair pulled up into the sky with helium balloons.

I suppose the moral to this story is not to take things too literally or you’ll get all wrapped up in nonsense. Far better to have a little fun with things. I think Jesus would be proud. After all, who knows what happened to the person miles away who encountered a faux Jesus descending from heaven?

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