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While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.

Any parent who has delivered a child to a university in a distant city knows that it is necessary and good that their child become independent, learn how to take care of themselves, mature and learn academic and life lessons, be responsible for their own laundry and nutrition, by going away.

In choosing a university a distance from home parents likely refer to the positive experiences of others to set a context for their own child who is coming of age. And they hope that the lessons they have taught their child stand them in good stead. They tell their child to stay in touch and promise to support them in times of extraordinary need and may leave them with a gift of some kind.
The separation gives the child space to grow, and become their own person.

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Now, consider Jesus’ departure from his disciples through this analogy.

By leaving them he was making space for his disciples to grow, passing on to them the responsibility of spreading the good news, promising them the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Like a parent he talked about those who had gone before and their growing experiences.

As long as he was physically present to his disciples, Jesus knew that they would default to him as their leader. He had to step aside, and give them the opportunity …with the help of his Spirit… to continue his mission to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

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He reminded them that he had planned to go. The gospel for the Ascension begins, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.

As I read this passage, Jesus was not just referring to prophecy but to holy examples and references to ascension.

Jesus may have recalled Jacob’s ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it (Gen 28:12)

He may have reminded them of a chariot of fire and horses of fire …and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. (2 Kings 2:11) 

Or he may have quoted proverbs…Who has ascended to heaven and come down?  (Proverbs 30:4)

Jesus frequently quoted Isaiah and may have repeated his words
I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, 
I will make myself like the Most High.’ (Isaiah 14:14)

Jesus didn’t stop with the Old Testament references. During his travels he told them that he would ascend. He probably reminded them of some of his many references to his ascension…
After he had fed the 5000 and told his disciples that he would give them his flesh to eat and his blood to drink  
…. He said to them, ‘Does this offend you?  Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (John 6:61-62)

During one of his confrontations with the Pharisees and Chief priests over his teaching Jesus then said, ‘I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. (John 7:33)

 Again speaking to the Pharisees he said, 
…I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. (John 8:14)

At the last Supper, Jesus made multiple references to his return to his father. Here are a few of them:
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14:12)

The word, because, is causal. He told his disciples that his going away was so that they would grow into doing greater works. Then he added, … I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; John 16:10

I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.’ (John 16:28)

After his resurrection

Jesus said to (Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday morning), ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them,  “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ John 20:17

As the gospels progressed his statements about his ascension became clearer.  And now, on the day of Ascension, they came into focus. We know that his disciples understood this because the gospel says that they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Without fully understanding it they had the experience of seeing the risen Christ with their own eyes. They had heard him explain the scriptures, and they looked forward to the next chapter in the experience of following him. But with Jesus, everything was new…cures, walking on water, death AND resurrection. Their prior experience with him had taught them to expect the unexpected. So it was with his ascension.

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His ascension is an object of curiosity for us. It falls into the category of mystery: something we hold as true but can’t explain in a way that satisfies a rational scientific mind.
His ascension into heaven is a matter of faith. In the Nicene Creed we say

“the third day he rose again
according to the scriptures,
and ascended into heaven…
…and he shall come again with glory
to judge both the quick and the dead”:

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In Acts we read,

he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’

The disciples left Bethany and went back to Jerusalem confident in Jesus’ promise…even if they didn’t fully understand what it meant.

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That’s the story, in a nutshell. The question is: what does it mean to us. 
One way to reflect on the Ascension is to enjoy the poetry and art of the event. We see that Christ rose into the clouds and the sky beyond. He became part of the interstellar time and space which he had originally created in the company of the Father and the Spirit.

I think of John McGee’s poem, High Flight, and wonder if Jesus said the words…

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air ....

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor ever eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

One painting of Jesus by Salvador Dali shows the soles of Jesus’ feet from the perspective of his disciples as he is ascending. Dali’s painting is both humorous and joyful, (though you may notice that there are no nail marks in Dali’s image of Jesus feet.)

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Another way to understand this gospel is that we live in a post-ascension time. We’ve heard the teaching of scripture we know of Jesus’ life. He left us the task of following his example and living our lives in such a way that we can ascend with him into heaven. We know he is not here, but we wait with hope, joy and an orientation towards God for the Holy Spirit to come to us…not just at Pentecost (Next Sunday)… but each moment of the day, to guide us through each of life’s relationships wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matt 10:16) 

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Finally we can think of it as a kind of invitation to understand Jesus’ life as a fulfillment of scripture and as a way of preparing for his eventual return by worshipping him like the disciples did with great joy and blessing God. 

Like parents who say good-bye to their child in the parking lot of a university they hope that they have equipped them with the life skills to fend for themselves, to become their own person, to fulfill their potential.

Jesus’ invitation is to live into the hopes he has for each of us by following his teaching and example of love.

I pray that each of us accepts that invitation.