The Ascension of Jesus Christ is one of those stories that are a bit puzzling and easy to ridicule. I think it fair to say that some of the ways that well-meaning writers and artists have used have not helped. We read in the New Testament that some time after Jesus was raised from the dead (which we celebrate at Easter) he left his disciples and returned home: he went ‘up’ into heaven (that we celebrate on Ascension Day, forty days after Easter Day. This year it is on 2nd June 2011). The phrase used in the book of Acts is that Jesus “was lifted up and a cloud took him out of his sight”. I know of at least one chapel which has a cloud attached to its ceiling and a pair of feet sticking out underneath it. Then there is a video intended for children and it shows Jesus shooting up into the air looking for all the world like a Saturn V rocket. It shows a way of reading of the Bible which is unhelpful and makes particular assumptions about the universe. If we think about it for a minute, even if Jesus travelled at the speed of light, he would have travelled about 2,000 light years: I don’t think that that would get him across the galaxy we live in, let alone the end of the universe. Another assumption is that heaven is a place a long way away from here. By definition, though, heaven is not in this universe; it is in another “dimension” (to borrow an idea from science). “Where” that dimension is is impossible to describe – it may be very close indeed.

I think the mention of the cloud is what causes much of our confusion. Think of a cloud and the chances are you think of a weather cloud (fair weather cloud, rain cloud etc) or perhaps something like mist or fog. But in the Bible a reference to cloud is often a metaphor used to suggest the mysterious presence of God or God’s glory. For example, in Jesus’ transfiguration (when Jesus’ appearance was changed in a dazzling bright way when he was on a mountain with some of the disciples) it was while the cloud covered them that they heard God’s voice. The point about the cloud is not the weather but that God was present in a particularly special way: somehow God was closer than ever before. The cloud tells us that Jesus went into the place where God is – the place we call heaven.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus’ ascension into heaven is simply the rounding off of his story but in fact it is more than that. In the Luke’s gospel and in the book of Acts Jesus’ ascension forms the link, a bridge if you like, between his life and work on earth and the life and work of his followers who continue to spread the good news of death conquered and God’s overpowering love revealed in Jesus Christ their Lord. The Ascension also tells us where Jesus is now. To be sure he is present with us through his Spirit, but until he returns he is in heaven his home. In other words, where God is, Jesus is. For Christians that is a very important point.

The point about the cloud is not that Jesus went up but that Jesus Christ went away; he did not go into outer space, he went home to heaven. Meanwhile, his last promise is that he will not leave his disciples all alone – he will be sending them a gift from heaven in a few days’ time. And we may receive that gift too.