We think the Ascension story is untrue because we have heard similar stories that we know are fantasy. But if the Ascension actually happened as it was reported, then it might be a sort of fulfillment of the other stories. In other words, instead of the false stories making every similar story false, the one true story might make all the similar stories true.
Think, for example of all the fantasy stories about princesses marrying handsome princes despite all the odds. Then when a real girl finds true love and marries the man of her dreams does she not make all the fantasy stories come true? When the man is transformed by her radiant and faithful love from a disgusting beast into a reasonably civilized husband and father have the couple not made all the beauty and the beast stories come true?
In a similar way, when a hero really does, in a unique incident, ascend into heaven he validates all those stories where the hero rises up, and flies away home. So rather than the fantasy stories making the gospel story untrue, it could be that the gospel story makes all the fantasy stories true. But for this to be the case we have to imagine in what way such an unbelievable story might actually have happened.
Can we even begin to believe that Jesus Christ was “beamed up” into heaven? It depends on your point of view. Not long ago the news reported the first steps being taken towards teleportation. Can we be so credulous as to really accept that Jesus floated up into the air and disappeared from their sight? Why not? Levitation is well documented in the annals of mysticism. In fact, it is one of the more common and most reliably witnessed of the supernatural phenomena. Lots of people saw Saint Teresa of Avila levitate, and Saint Joseph Cupertino was so adept at levitation that he was eventually named patron saint of pilots and airline hostesses. Levitation is not even that impressive amongst those who believe. When Saint Thomas Aquinas was summoned to witness the remarkable case of a nun floating he simply remarked, “I didn’t know nuns wore such big boots.” Mystics of other religions have also been observed to defy the normal laws of gravity, fakirs float, poltergeists make heavy objects fly through the air, and the demon possessed are known to both roar and soar.
I point this out, not to say that the Ascension was simply a case of teleportation or levitation, but to embarrass the empiricists among us. The empiricist says he will only believe something that can be seen with his own eyes or verified by credible eyewitnesses. Then when credible eyewitnesses report that a saint has levitated or that they have seen a demon possessed person thrown across the room by some malevolent force, the empiricist denies that it happened. So he doesn’t believe eyewitnesses after all. He believes his prejudices. When Saint Thomas Aquinas saw the levitating nun he also saw the joke, and that’s one of the delightful things about levitation stories. The Ascension is much more important than a simple case of levitation, but the same sense of joie de vivre is there, and the Ascension, like levitation, reminds us that the law of gravity is sometimes broken by levity.
So if gravity is sometimes defied in a supernatural way, how might this make us reconsider the Ascension of Jesus Christ from the earth? The account given in the New Testament says he floated up into the clouds, and eventually faded from sight. This is more than levitation. He didn’t just go up and come down. He went up, then he disappeared. This sounds unbelievable, but isn’t this what we would expect if someone were to be taken physically from the material realm into the spiritual realm? Even if we think this is where Jesus went, the whole story sounds like “going to the spiritual realm” meant that he became less physical. Most of us have this annoying tendency to spiritualize such stories and make them ghostly, ethereal and weird. But what if it is the other way around? What if Jesus did not become less physical but more physical? What if he disappeared because he eventually went into another realm which is not less real, but more real?
How can this be? Am I simply spinning theories and being fanciful? No. I’m serious, and as usual, everything depends on our starting point of view. We naturally assume that this physical world is the real, solid and substantial realm while the spiritual realm is ethereal, wispy, transparent and therefore less real. But who is to say which is more real—the invisible realm or the visible realm? Most people think the world of spirits is ethereal while the physical world is solid; but what if it is exactly the other way around? Let’s imagine Aunt Susan said she saw an angel pass through a brick wall. We would assume that the angel was ethereal and “unreal” because we assume the brick wall is solid. But what if angels are more solid and eternal than brick walls? If they are, then it is the wall that is flimsy and insubstantial.
How do we know which one passed through the other? Physics tells us what we consider solid matter is mostly air. What if the angels (who we think of as creatures of air) are, in fact, made of some matter more dense and solid than the brick wall? Then the angel may have passed through the brick wall as a man passes through a bank of fog. If you didn’t know the nature of fog or a human being, and you witnessed a man step through a bank of fog wouldn’t it be easy to believe that he was ethereal and the fog solid?
Can we rely on our perceptions to tell us what is real and unreal? The physicists tell us that material reality behaves in very strange and contradictory ways, and the physicians tell us that our senses are very easily fooled. If the physical world is more fickle than we thought, and if our eyes and ears cannot always be trusted, perhaps the more trustworthy world is the one that cannot be seen and heard. Saint Paul agrees with Plato that the invisible things are more permanent than the visible. If this is the case, then the person who believes in the reality of the spiritual dimension may be more of a realist than the Man from Missouri. Similarly, if this whole material world is compacted from dust, air and water, and if it will eventually return to dust and ash, then the stout materialist is the one who trusts in the ephemeral.
To return to the story of the Ascension, it could be that while the disciples saw Jesus vaporize into the spiritual realm, he in fact, passed through a “cloud of fog” into a realm which was not less solid and real than this one, but more solid and real. From his point of view he was leaving the fuzzy, unreal world behind and entering into a world that is far more real, colorful, vibrant and alive than this world. What if all the lurid religious art with its ghastly colors and vivid detail points to some reality we hadn’t counted on? What if heaven is as bright, colorful and flamboyant as a Mardi Gras parade, a fun fair or a Hindu festival? If this is so, then when Jesus went from this world to the next he was simply leaving a vague shadow world to step into a world where the light is like crystal and each grain of dust is as hard and beautiful as diamonds.
This post is an excerpt from my book Adventures in Orthodoxy.